7 of the Biggest Quacks and Scam Artists in Medical History

Personal Health

Mike Huckabee, former Fox News talking head and possible presidential contender again, recently came under considerable fire for being the spokesman for a dubious “cure” for diabetes, a disease that affects 29 million Americans and is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. The Diabetes Solution Kit Huckabee endorsed includes recommendations for supplements like cinnamon to supposedly cure the disease.

Huckabee did a cut and run from the gig after criticism became too intense, but the fact that he chose to be the front man for snake oil in the first place would seem to call his judgment into question. Then again, quack medicine has a long history in the arena of conservative politics. Because many right-wingers seem to think that science itself is somehow liberally biased, quackery often fills the hole left by rejected science. Newsmax, Fox News and Glenn Beck are just some of the conservative outlets for quackery. You might say that ignorance, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

In truth, there wasn’t much difference between a doctor and a quack for much of human history. Angry gods, flat Earths and demon possessions ruled the ancient days. Despite the incredible advances science has made in the past few hundred years, it seems belief in gods and demons as the causes of disease still lurks. As long as there has been a problem to solve and money to make, charlatans have been ready to step forward to cure your disease and take your money. 

Here are seven of the quackiest frauds in medical history.

1. William J. A. Bailey

Radioactivity, for that healthy glow.

Marie Curie discovered the radioactive metal radium. For this, and other groundbreaking research on radioactivity, she deservedly received historical acclaim. However, others took advantage of her discoveries and applied their own ignorance and greed to medical history. One such person was William J.A. Bailey. Bailey noticed that the properties of radium fascinated most people, especially the fact that it glowed and seemed to give off a power.

Bailey, who called himself a doctor but had no medical degree, founded Radium Company, whose chief product was Radithor, a medicine that would “invigorate” his patients. Radithor was essentially radium dissolved in water, but Bailey promised it would provide glowing health. Eben Byers was one of Bailey’s wealthiest clients. Byers consumed well over 1,000 bottles of Radithor. His jaw fell off and he died. His autopsy revealed large holes in his brain and skull. Among other products Bailey marketed was a radium paperweight, to provide a lift to the deskbound, and a radium belt clip for portable energy.

2. John R. Brinkley

Goat testicles, anyone?

John R. Brinkley had interesting ideas about male sexuality. After observing the sexual prowess of goats in a meatpacking company, he decided goat testicles were the answer to male impotence. In thousands of procedures, he opened up the scrotums of his unfortunate patients, and inserted goat testicles in their scrotal sacs. He didn’t physically attach the goat testicles to anything. He just put them in and closed up the sac. Brinkley lucked out when his first patient managed to get his wife pregnant. The subsequent publicity was a bonanza, and Brinkley began promoting his procedure as a cure for all sorts of ailments, including dementia and flatulence. He began advertising his “breakthrough” on radio, claiming his transplants turned men into “the ram that am with every lamb.” Of course, the fact that Brinkley was minimally trained, never completed medical school, was often drunk when operating, and not particularly hygienic became a problem. Several of his patients died (not directly from the goat testicle, which was simply absorbed into the body, but from infections). He was sued for malpractice, eventually wound up bankrupt and disgraced, and died penniless from a heart attack in 1942.

3. John Harvey Kellogg

No sex, please. Bad for the digestion.

Although John Harvey did invent the corn flake, it was his brother, Will Kellogg, who ran the cereal company. Immortalized in the bestselling novel and subsequent movie, The Road to Wellville, John Harvey Kellogg was a genuinely strange man. He was an actual medical doctor, unlike some quack magnates, and may be considered the father of the modern health food movement. Kellogg operated a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where wealthy clients adopted vegetarian diets, exercised regularly, quit drinking and smoking, and did deep breathing exercises. No doubt these lifestyle changes were excellent for the health. The quackery came in with some of Kellogg’s other beliefs.

John Harvey was a big advocate of enemas. His patients had them regularly, using a machine that forced several gallons of water into the intestine. Water enemas were followed by yogurt, taken by mouth as well as via the back door. In addition to the enemas, high-fiber diets were prescribed, further scraping clean the colon, which Kellogg believed to be the cause of most disease. Sexual activity was also banned under the Kellogg regimen as he believed sex weakened the system. Masturbation, which he thought was the cause of cancer of the womb, urinary disease and epilepsy, among other illnesses, was a no-no. Circumcision was prescribed for men to reduce sexual pleasure, and the application of carbolic acid to the clitoris for women. Despite the extreme nature of Kellogg’s treatments, he had a huge roster of famous clients, including former president William Howard Taft, Amelia Earhart, Tarzan movie star Johnny Weissmuller, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison.

4. William Radam

Gardening and medicine—the same thing.

William Radam was a Prussian who settled in that hotbed of quackery, Texas, in the later 19th century. Beset by malaria and other ailments, Radam was frustrated by his doctor’s inability to cure his illnesses. Radam was living during the time Louis Pasteur made the connection between disease and bacteria. Radam, an ardent gardener, likened bacteria to weeds, and figured that by destroying the bacteria in the body he could destroy disease. After some research, he came up with the “Microbe Killer,” a potion that destroyed all microbes in the body and cured all disease. The label on the bottle showed a man swinging a bat at a skeleton, presumably representing death. "The Microbe Killer cannot be compared with ordinary drugs,” Radam wrote about his discovery. “It does not contain any of them. It is pure water, permeated with gases which are essential to the nourishment of the system, and in which micro-organisms cannot live and propagate, or fermentation exist."

He marketed the Microbe Killer as a “weed killer” with a wink and a nod, to avoid lawsuits in case anyone died from the elixir. His cure-all was an immediate bestseller, and Radam moved from Texas to New York City, where he expanded his company (at its height, up to17 factories). Eventually, however, his potion was called to task. A Long Island doctor, whose analysis found Radam's “medicine” to be 99% water with small amounts of hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, called Radam a “misguided crank.” The revelation did nothing to sway the public. Despite court cases that went against Radam, the Microbe Killer continued to sell even after his death in 1902.

5. Clark Stanley

The father of snake oil.

Clark Stanley was the original snake oil salesman. In the early 1900s, Mr. Stanley put on quite a show. Gathering a large crowd, he would kill rattlesnakes while pitching his miracle snake oil medicine. He claimed that his concoction of snake venoms was derived from the secret recipe of an Indian medicine man and would cure toothaches, sprains, pain and all manner of ills, for just 50 cents a bottle. In 1917, federal agents decided to see what was in Stanley’s snake oil. No snake oil, it turned out. It was 99% mineral oil, a bit of beef fat, and some red pepper and turpentine to give it that medicinal flavor. Stanley found himself out of business, but the term “snake oil salesman” lives on, almost 100 years later.

6. D.D. Palmer

Curing lower back pain and cancer all at once.

A lot of people feel they have been helped by chiropractors, but the truth is that chiropractic medicine is built on a pretty shaky foundation. D.D. Palmer, the father of chiropractic “science,” based his theories on two instances. In one, he accidentally hit a deaf janitor in the ear during some horseplay, and days later the janitor showed up and said he could miraculously hear again. In the second, he manipulated a patient’s spine and claimed to cure her of heart problems. Somehow, out of this gossamer research, he came up with the theory that the body had a fluid with “innate intelligence” and clearing the pathway for the fluid could cure any ailment whatsoever. To do that, one simply had to manipulate the spine.

Most (not all) of today’s practitioners might back away from the origins of chiropractic practice, and claim other dubious benefits of spinal manipulation, but given the “science” chiropractic is based on, one might just as easily argue for the benefits of fairy dust.

7. Bernard Jensen

The eyes have it.

Bernard Jensen was a famous chiropractor who also popularized the “medical” practice of iridology, diagnosing disease by studying the iris of the eye. Different parts of the iris, he believed, corresponded to different parts of the body and different organs. Darker parts of the iris indicated disease. If, for example, the part of the iris that represented the liver was dark, the liver was in distress. Jensen even developed a chart of the iris showing which body parts corresponded to which area of the iris.

There has never been any actual science to substantiate iridology, and in fact, the iris is one of the only parts of the body that rarely changes. People are born with light and dark areas of their irises and basically die with their irises unchanged.

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