What’s this blog all about?
I started The Quack Doctor as a way of categorising my notes about historical medical advertisements – but it turned out that lots of other people liked to read about them too! The site has developed to include anything health-related and advertised, whether or not it was ever considered the work of ‘quacks’. These days I mostly look at the 19th and early 20th centuries, but there are some earlier adverts in the blog archives. I also occasionally post about more general history of medicine topics, or transcribe tales of strange medical cases. Because of the focus on advertising, the blog doesn’t really cover folk medicine or domestic medical recipes, as interesting as they are.
Why medical and pharmaceutical advertising?
Loads of historical adverts are beautiful and fascinating, but I became specifically interested in advertised medicines when I was using newspapers during the research for my novel. I discovered that these remedies often get lumped together as ‘quack medicines sold to the gullible’, so I wanted to find out more about the stories of individual products and the people who sold and used them. The advertisements give an insight into the choices available to health consumers at a time when there was nothing to fall back on when things got serious.
The remedy you just wrote about is completely legit, you ignoramus!
Sometimes people think the website’s title means I’m condemning everything I write about, but that’s really not the case! Any advertising related to human or animal health might be included. While there were certainly plenty of fraudsters out to rip people off, other remedies were everyday over-the-counter products. The customers didn’t have to be stupid or credulous – they were of as varied intelligence, circumstances and character as any group of modern consumers.
Are you laughing at the past?
The adverts can be entertaining – perhaps owing to changes in the meaning of words, fun illustrations, because they were always intended to attract attention, or because of the ‘plus ça change‘ aspect. I don’t see the past as open to ridicule, but humour has historically featured a lot in people’s responses to patent medicine and it can unite us with our ancestors rather than set us apart. It’s important to me that the site focuses on the individuality of the practitioners and patients, so there’s no ‘ha, ha, you won’t believe what those crazy Victorians did!’ kind of stuff, but I often adopt a lighthearted tone.
Who runs the site?
My name is Caroline Rance and I am a writer and editor living in the UK. I have an MA in Medicine, Science and Society: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives, and my thesis was Secret Vices and Silent Friends: Quackery in the treatment of spermatorrhoea, 1840-1870.
I am not a health professional. I did work for a while in an NHS complaints department, which is why I no longer have a soul, but this didn’t qualify me to give medical advice. Please go to your GP rather than consult me about your symptoms (yes, some people really do this).
How do I contact you?
If you have a comment about a specific post on this blog then please leave a comment. But if you desperately need to ask me something, you can send an email, or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook. I am happy to give illustrated talks about the history of patent medicines and to contribute to media features.
Can you help with my research?
I can indeed – my freelance research rate is £15 per hour plus any travel expenses required, and your query does not have to focus on the history of medicine. I also do archive look-ups for family historians and any general historical research you might require. I am based in South Buckinghamshire and am regularly in London, so if you are (for example) a genealogist, house historian or author who can’t travel to this area and needs someone diligent to visit a records office for you, do get in touch. I can even search for and photograph your ancestor’s grave for you!
The historical information on this site is presented for general interest and is NOT a source of medical advice, nor is it possible to buy any of the remedies described. (Sorry if this sounds obvious, but you know what people are like.)
I hope this blog will encourage you to share my love for the history of medicine. Thank you for reading.