Quacks, Quack Doctors, and Quackery

Quacks, Quack Doctors, and Quackery

by Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, originally published at Orthomolecular.org


The German word for "quicksilver" was "quecksilber". American dentists shortened it to "quack" to describe the amalgam-hucksters. Quick-silver Associates write "It is sobering to realize that the original "quacks" were dentists who advocated the use of mercury amalgam."  

Recently I was given a tape in which is recorded the proceedings of a committee–The Fraudulent Medical Practices Watch and Be Wary Committee–at the 84th meeting of the Federation of State Medical Boards meeting in Chicago, April 11, 1996. Three presentations were made. Dr. John Renner, a self confessed undercover agent, who described his efforts to uncover fraud including disguising himself as a patient in order to access physicians offices and to attend meetings of alternative and complementary practitioners. The second speaker was Mr. R. Bell, a prosecutor in California who told the assembled group how to achieve their goal of stripping the licenses from these doctors. Finally Mr. M. Daynor from the Federal Trades Commission described what they were doing to deal with fraud and quackery.

I agree that fraud in medicine should be dealt with very seriously and some of the examples given certainly did require that action be taken to suppress these activities. The examples dealt with physicians who were medical doctors and who were innovative in their practice but in no way could they be considered alternative nor complementary. They were down the line establishment doctors who were perpetrating fraud.

But the committee also dealt with complementary practitioners in the same vein. These were physicians who were recognized as honorable became suspect only because, unhappy with the results of their previous practice, they sought something which would help their patients more. It is obvious that the committee members had not the slightest conception of what complementary practitioners were attempting to do. Nor were they aware of the meaning of the word quack and how it became entrenched in modern language.

According to the Oxford International Dictionary the word was first used in 1638. A quack was defined as follows.

Who is to be trusted more, an empiric who has seen the results of the therapy or a theoretician who on a priori principles knows that the treatment could not possibly work. Am I to be ignored after I have supervised five double blind controlled experiments beginning in 1953, after have seen the result of orthomolecular treatment on thousands of patients? Or should the theoretician, who believes my results are fictitious, because his blind adherence to theories tells him that no vitamin could possibly help any schizophrenic patients? Empirici should depend much more on observation and much less on theories which in any event are evanescent and change every few decades. Would anyone today accept the explanation for how penicillin worked during the last war as being accurate today.

About three hundred years ago Dr.

T. Sydenham, in London, nearly lost his license and was challenged to a duel because he had observed that following the old and ancient precepts for treating small pox increased the death rate. The theoreticians had believed for 1500 years that small pox was due to an increased head of pressure by the evil humours and that they had to be released by increasing body temperature (increasing fever). This they did by covering the unfortunate patients with too many blankets, closing the windows and giving them strong liquors. Dr. Sydenham observed that the death rate was much higher in the summer than in the winter. This observation was considered wrong since theory stated that the death rate should have been much less in the summer, as it was much easier to overheat people in England in the summer.

They had no central heating. After Sydenham realized that the theory failed to predict the outcome of treatment he concluded the theory was wrong. He, in fact, would have been labeled a quack by this modern USA committee. He, therefore, changed his treatment by decreasing fever, by leaving open the windows and by allowing only the consumption of light ales. In other words he recommended easing or preventing fever and ample fluids. Is this not the treatment for fever today? Here we have a classic example of a physician, once classified a quack, who using the committee's definition, practised quack medicine, who is today considered the father of modern bedside medicine. If our committee had had their way 300 years ago we would still be treating fever by increasing it, by keeping the air hot and humid and by feeding our patients whiskey, scotch and bourbon.

Quacks, Quack Doctors, and Quackery

It is clear that this committee has corrupted the term quack. After listening to this interesting tape twice I have concluded that they have adopted the definition of quack used 300 years by medical establishments. Simply, as they see it, a quack is anyone who disagrees with them. In other words anyone who subscribes to the old paradigm is practicing scientific medicine while anyone who brings new information and techniques which is going to challenge the old paradigm is automatically a quack. They conveniently forget that 85% of all medical practices are based upon observation, upon anecdote, upon case histories, upon vast experience and in no way, using their definition, can be considered as scientific medicine.

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