Sunday, May 7, 2017
Talking Australian: A short history of Australian Quackery
The term quack or quackery means fraudulent or ignorant medical practices. A quack is a "fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill" or "a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, or qualifications he or she does not possess i.e. a charlatan". The term quack is a clipped form of the archaic term quacksalver, (Dutch: quacksalver a "hawker of salve") and in the Middle Ages, quack meant "shouting" as the quacksalvers sold their wares on the street shouting in a loud voice. During the Middle Ages, the combination of plagues and syphilis left the orthodox medicine in the absence of antibiotics, unable to cope with painful skin sores. Things were dire and a blind eye was turned to charlatans and quacks purveying all manner of so called remedies, most of which had little or no effect or worse caused further complications. Among the popular salves and quack cures was one which survived to this day i.e. the corn cure. By the middle of the nineteenth century quack medicine had been banned in France and Germany causing many purveyors of life’s elixir to spread throughout Europe and the colonies. In Australia at this time it was unclear who could practice medicine and many quacks roamed the country making the best of the opportunity. Not all were scoundrels but many were.
Lying and extravagant claims in newspaper advertisements were all accepted norms in these days and reflected an era when free enterprise was the name of the game. Victorians were agog with electricity and all manner of therapeutic appliances that plugged into the electricity grid were for sale. A physiotherapist’s delight. From corsets to belts all were electrified and claims of curing weak backs, functional irregularities, hysteria, kidney disorders and rheumatism would put today’s infomercials to shame. Most of course did not work and many of the so-called inventors spent long years doing vertical sun tan for their frauds and scams. Some however survived and became legitimised.
Pall Mall Electric Association was an Australian company which advertised extremely practical products such electrical hairbrushes, toothbrushes and electric insoles. All had one thing in common; they were all mercifully harmless which is perhaps not what might be said about the advertising copy which appeared throughout Australian newspapers in the 1880s.
Nothing to do with the old plates of meat (Rhyming slang for feet) but a fellow by the name of Doctor Richard Foot came in Sydney in about 1860, his motto was “Vitality force” and was the Viagra of the time. At seventeen shillings and sixpence Doctor Foot would supply you with his voltaic appliance for coping with seminal weakness.
In Melbourne he introduced his Brown Sequard or monkey gland injections. Foot was a professional showman and held regular seminars to the demonstrate his products, throughout Australia, he then moved to New Zealand, returned briefly to Sydney before setting himself up in South Africa as Professor Foot. His fortunes were less well starred there and eventually he was exposed for contravening the Medical and Pharmacy Act.
The Victorians were also fascinated magnetism and any manner of magical creams and potions. Dr Sheldon’s Magnetic Liniment was popular and claimed to cure rheumatism, backache, toothache, neuralgia, sore throat, corns and cuts and bruises, according to the newspaper adverts. Water (hydropathic) became a treatment in itself, whether recommended to drink in copious quantities or just bathe in it, great efficacious benefits would accrue. Antiseptic footbaths were recommended for ailments causing flatulence, bowels dysfunction, lungs and headaches.
Perhaps the greatest hydro therapist of the day was Father Sebastian Kneipp. from Worishofen in Bavaria, the parish priest had no medical training but was interested in water cures. He was used herbal remedies and was reat believer in walking barefoot for good health. So popular was his hydrotherapy Australian doctors began using it.
Phillips P 1984 Kill or cure: Lotions, potions, characters and quacks of early Australia Richmond: Greenhouse Publishing