Book Review: Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth- Century America

Book Review: Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth- Century America

Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth- Century America.  Eric W. Boyle Praeger 2013 ABC- CLIO LLC Santa Barbara CA 239p

Book Review by Eugenie V Mielczarek

In Quack Medicine Eric W. Boyle lecturer at the University of Maryland, guest researcher in the Office of History at NIH and archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine details America’s romance with ‘Quackery ‘ from the eve of the civil war to the present. His book is part of the Praeger Series, Healing Society: Disease, Medicine and History. John Parascandola Series Editor.

In 1847 licensed physicians whose objective was to protect the unwary against the “hucksters “ of Patent Medicines founded the American Medical Association. Eleven years later physician Dan King wrote ‘Quackery Unmasked ‘ blowing “ the whistle on …dangerous quackeries.” Boyle chronicles the efforts of trained state licensed physicians who in the mid 19th century found themselves competing with healers, clergymen, homeopaths, herbalists and hydropaths who “claimed to derive their therapies from empirical evidence.” Traveling salesmen thrived selling wonder drugs to rural areas.

Boyle details the growth of the AMA from 13,000 members in 1900 to 80,000 in the 1920’s. Although being a neophyte with internal politics, the fast growing AMA fastened an anchor to evaluate drugs with its ‘Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry.’ Throughout Boyle matches his narrative with illustrations of educational efforts by the AMA juxtaposed with advertisement s from leading newspapers promising ‘immediate and definite’ results from patent medicines.

However despite the heroic efforts of muckraking physicians, gullibility of the public persisted. Initial efforts to set standards for labeling (prescription versus ‘over the counter’) consumed congressional debate. This debate featured a cast of players with considerable financial power: newspaper publishers, druggists, national patriotic organizations and drug manufacturers. Boyle puts a human face on these debates by recounting the 107 deaths stemming from an improperly labeled reconstituted Sulfanilamide sold by the Massengill Company in 1937. Alerted by physicians the AMA discovered that the product contained diethylene glycol. Putting a human face on the labeling debate sets up the reader for the history of the Federal Food and Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

The last three chapters covers more familiar territory. The efforts of Congressman Claude Pepper and Senators Hubert Humphrey and Estes Kefauver to set protections in place and a reminder of Francis Kelsey’s heroic efforts which kept Thalidomide from use in American medical offices.

In 1986, AMA members Stephen Barrett, Wallace Sampson, William Jarvis and Thomas Jukes identified themselves as “Quackbusters” and founded the National Council Against Health Fraud. Their purpose was to create an educational program to foil the growth of this billion dollar ‘non-evidenced based- alternative medicine’ industry. Unfortunately in 1998 Congress and the Federal Government chose to create an Office of Alternative Medicine within NIH as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine which is currently funded at $129 million dollars a year. This federal largess includes funding of schools of alternative medicine, research grants which include testing violations of the laws of physics, and sadly some cases of clinical trials which were medically unsound.

Boyle succinctly sums up the current standoff as a conspiracy rooted in political maneuvering, which funds modalities with ‘no clear basis in medical science.’ As William Jarvis pointed out, ‘people who chose complementary and alternative medicine made the same mistakes that victims of quackery made all along.’

Well researched and a lively read Boyle’s history of ‘Quack Medicine ‘ is recommended for all who share the concerns of the Society for Science-Based Medicine.


Eugenie V Mielczarek, Emeritus professor of Physics at George Mason University is a former officer of the Division of Biological Physics, of the American Physical Society. She has written for this site and SBM. She and Brian D. Engler have published three articles in the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER detailing NIH’s NCCAM funding for Alternative Medicine.

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