Inspiration Online Magazine


What is the origin of the word "quack,"
meaning a fake or unethical doctor?

William Hogarth, 1743: "The Visit to the Quack Doctor"
Oil on Canvas - National Gallery, London, UK

The word "quack" is an abbreviation of "quacksalver" a 16th-century word meaning a peddler who sold fraudulent medicines in the street. Since to quack meant to peddle, to "quacksalve" meant to peddle a salve or ointment, especially one that allegedly could cure any malady. The charlatan who did this peddling was a quacksalver. Today a "quack" means either a fake or unethical medical doctor.

Although medical quackery has been around for centuries, it seems to have flowered the most in the United States. The medicine wagons of the snake oil peddlers in the 1800s later gave way to much more sophisticated scams.

Radionics was one of the most popular frauds in the 1920s and 1930s. The quack doctor used a small wooden box with a number of holes in the front and a light bulb inside. A number of wires, a dial, a pedal, and a glass tube were added to make the box impressive. Thin pieces of colored paper were pasted over the holes.

The patient would moisten a slip of paper with his tongue and then drop it into a slot on top of the box. The quack doctor claimed he could see a letter through one of the holes that would diagnose the patient's illness. For example, an A meant the patient was suffering from arthritis. Radionic doctors claimed they could lengthen a patient's legs, cause amputated fingers to grow back, and fill dental cavities, as well as kill dandelions over any specified distance and fertilize fields as far as 70 miles away.

Another fraud was the Spectro-Chrome therapy machine. The quack doctor explained that each color had significance. For instance, red energized the liver, blue built vitality, lemon yellow built bones, purple prevented malaria, and so on. When these colors were not in harmony, disease or other physical ailments resulted.

The quack doctor claimed his Spectro-Chrome machine would attune all the color waves of a person's body to bring good health. As bizarre as it sounds, by 1940 he had sold enough of his machines to earn him over $ 1 million.

There are countless other medical frauds in our history, most of which were invented in the late 1800s or early 1900s. A few examples are the Homo-Vibra Ray, whose practitioners claimed the ability of diagnosing illnesses even if the patient was a great distance away; the electric brush designed to relieve headaches and promote hair growth; the galvanic eyeglasses said to improve eyesight and prevent nasal congestion; and the radio disease killer, which was an impressive-looking box of electronic gear that the patient could use to cure himself.

Today there are many reputable alternatives to standard medical techniques, such as homeopathy, naturopathy, medicinal herbs and flowers, various touch therapies and others. One will always find a few quacks, of course... whether it's traditional medicine or natural healing practices.

~Source: "What Makes Flamingos Pink?" by Bill McLain

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Chelle Thompson, Editor ~ Jane Cate, The TechAngel
This publication originates in Santa Fe, New Mexico 87502 U.S.A.


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