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Quackery is a derogatory term used to describe unproven or fraudulent medical practices. Random House Dictionary describes a "quack" as 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; a charlatan."

The word "quack" derives from the archaic word "quacksalver," of Dutch origin (spelled kwakzalver in contemporary Dutch), meaning "boaster who applies a salve." In the Middle Ages the word quack meant "shouting". The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market shouting in a loud voice.

"Health fraud" is often used as a synonym for quackery, but this use can be problematic, since quackery can exist without fraud, a word which implies deliberate deception.


Since there is no exact standard for what constitutes quackery, and how to differentiate it from experimental medicine, protoscience, religious and spiritual beliefs, etc., accusations of quackery are often part of polemics against one party or other, and sometimes in polemic exchanges.

In determining whether a person is committing quackery, the central question is what is acceptable evidence for the efficacy and safety of whatever treatments, cures, regimens, or procedures the alleged quack advocates. Because there is some level of uncertainty with all medical treatments, it is common ethical practice (and in some cases, a legal requirement) for pharmaceutical companies and many medical practitioners to explicitly state the promise, risks, and limitations of a medical choice.

Since it is difficult to distinguish between those who knowingly promote unproven medical therapies and those who are mistaken as to their effectiveness, U.S.marker courts have ruled in defamation cases that accusing someone of quackery or calling him a quack does not automatically mean that he or she is committing medical fraud — in order to be both a quack and a fraud, the quack has to know that he/she is misrepresenting the benefits and risks of the medical services offered (instead of, for example, promoting an ineffective product which the quack honestly believes is effective).

In addition to the ethical problems of promising benefits that can not reasonably be expected to occur, quackery also includes the risk that patients may choose to forego treatments that are more likely to help them, in favor of ineffective treatments given by the "quack".

Stephen Barrett, who runs Quackwatch, a consumer information organization with several websites dedicated to exposing quackery, defines the practice this way:

To avoid semantic problems, quackery could be broadly defined as "anything involving overpromotion in the field of health." This definition would include questionable ideas as well as questionable products and services, regardless of the sincerity of their promoters. In line with this definition, the word "fraud" would be reserved only for situations in which deliberate deception is involved.

The quacksalver

Unproven, usually ineffective, and sometimes dangerous medicines and treatments have been peddled throughout human history. Theatrical performances were sometimes mixed with purported medicine to enhance credibility.

Quack medicines often had no effective ingredients, while others, such as morphine and the like, made the patient feel better without curative properties. Some did have medicinal effects; for example mercury, silver and arsenic compounds may have helped some infections, willow bark contained salicylic acid (substance very similar to aspirin), and quinine from bark was an effective treatment for malaria. Knowledge of appropriate use and dosage was poor. Revalenta Arabica was sold in the 18th century as an empirical diet for invalids, extraordinary restorative virtues being attributed to it.

History of quackery in Europe and the United States

With little understanding of the causes and mechanisms of illnesses, widely marketed "cures" (as opposed to locally produced and locally used remedies), often referred to as patent medicines, first came to prominence during the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and the British colonies, including those in North America. Daffy's Elixir and Turlington's Balsam were among the first products to make use of branding (for example, by the use of highly distinctive containers) and mass marketing, in order to create and maintain markets. A similar process occurred in other countries of Europe around the same time, for example with the marketing of Eau de Cologne as a cure-all medicine by Johann Maria Farina and his imitators. Patent medicines often contained alcohol or opium.
Dalbys Carminative, Daffy's Elixir and Turlingtons Balsam of Life bottles dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
These "typical" patent or quack medicines were marketed in very different, and highly distinctive, bottles.
Each brand retained the same basic appearance for over 100 years.

The later years of the 18th century saw an increase in the number of internationally marketed quack medicines, the majority of which were British in origin, and which were exported throughout the British Empire. So popularly successful were these treatments that by 1830 British parliamentary records list over 1,300 different "proprietary medicines", the majority of which can be described as "quack" cures today.

British patent medicines started to lose their dominance in the United States when they were denied access to the American market during the American Revolution, and lost further ground for the same reason during the War of 1812. From the early 19th century "home-grown" American brands started to fill the gap, reaching their peak in the years after the American Civil War. British medicines never regained their previous dominance in North America, and the subsequent era of mass marketing of American patent medicines is usually considered to have been a "golden age" of quackery in the United States. This was mirrored by similar growth in marketing of quack medicines elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, false medicines in this era were often denoted by the slang term snake oil, a reference to sales pitches for the false medicines which used claims that their exotic ingredients were responsible for the supposed results or benefits. Those who sold them were called "snake oil peddlers", and usually sold their medicines with a fervent pitch similar to a fire and brimstone religious sermon. They often accompanied other theatrical and entertainment productions that travelled as a road show from town to town, leaving quickly before the falseness of their medicine could be discovered. Not all quacks were restricted to such small-time businesses however, and a number, especially in the United States, became enormously wealthy through national and international sales of their products.

One among many examples is that of William Radam, a German immigrant to the USA who, in the 1880s, started to sell his "Microbe Killer" throughout the United States and, soon afterwards, in Britain and throughout the British colonies. His concoction was widely advertised as being able to "Cure All Diseases" (W. Radam, 1890) and this phrase was even embossed on the glass bottles the medicine was sold in. In fact, Radam's medicine was a therapeutically useless (and in large quantities actively poisonous) dilute solution of sulfuric acid, coloured with a little red wine. Radam's publicity material, particularly his books (see for example Radam, 1890), provide an insight into the role that pseudo-science played in the development and marketing of "quack" medicines towards the end of the 19th century.

Similar advertising claimsHulda Regehr Clark, The Cure For All Diseases to those of Radam can be found throughout the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. "Dr." Sibley, an English patent medicine seller of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, even went so far as to claim that his Reanimating Solar Tincture would, as the name implies, "restore life in the event of sudden death". Another English quack, "Dr. Solomon" claimed that his Cordial Balm of Gilead cured almost anything, but was particularly effective against all venereal complaints, from gonorrhoea to onanism. Although it was basically just brandy flavoured with herbs, it retailed widely at 33 shillings a bottle in the period of the Napoleonic wars, the equivalent of over $100 per bottle today.

Not all patent medicines were without merit. Turlingtons Balsam of Life, first marketed in the mid-18th century, did have genuinely beneficial properties. This medicine continued to be sold under the original name into the early 20th century, and can still be found in the British and American Pharmacopoeias as "Compound tincture of benzoin". It can be argued that for some of these medicines this is an example of the infinite monkey theorem in action.

The end of the road for the quack medicines now considered grossly fraudulent in the nations of North America and Europe came in the early 20th century. February 21, 1906 saw the passage into law of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the United States. This was the result of decades of campaigning by both government departments and the medical establishment, supported by a number of publishers and journalists (one of the most effective of whom was Samuel Hopkins Adams, whose series "The Great American Fraud" was published in Colliers Weekly starting in late 1905). This American Act was followed three years later by similar legislation in Britain, and in other European nations. Between them, these laws began to remove the more outrageously dangerous contents from patent and proprietary medicines, and to force quack medicine proprietors to stop making some of their more blatantly dishonest claims.

"Medical quackery and the promotions of nostrums and worthless drugs were among the most prominent abuses which led to the establishment of formal self-regulation in business and, in turn, to the creation of the NBBB."

Quackery in contemporary culture

Considered by many an archaic term, quackery is most often used to denote the peddling of the "cure-alls" described above. Quackery continues even today; it can be found in any culture and in every medical tradition. Unlike other advertising mediums, rapid advancements in communication through the Internet have opened doors for an unregulated market of quack cures and marketing campaigns rivaling the early 1900s. Most people with an e-mail account have experienced the marketing tactics of spamming — touting the newest current trend for miraculous remedies for "weight-loss" and "sexual enhancement," as well as outlets for unprescribed medicines of unknown quality.

While quackery is often aimed at the aged or chronically ill, it can be aimed at all age groups, including teens, and the FDA has mentioned" Quackery Targets Teens." U.S. FDA some areas where potential quackery may be a problem: breast developers, weight loss, steroids and growth hormones, tanning and tanning pills, hair removal and growth, and look-alike drugs.

According to the U.S. Congress, quackery was determined to be the most harmful consumer fraud against elderly people. Non-scientific health care including acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, and naturopathy is licensed by individual states. These practitioners use unscientific methods and deception on a public who lack in depth health-care knowledge, must rely upon the trust of providers. Quackery not only harms people, it undermines scientific activity and should be publicly opposed by scientists.

For those in the practice of any medicine, to allege quackery is to level a serious objection to a particular form of practice. Most developed countries have a governmental agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, whose purpose is to monitor and regulate the safety of medications as well as the claims made by the manufacturers of new and existing products, including drugs and nutritional supplements or vitamins. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also participates in some of these efforts. To better address less regulated products, in 2000, US President Clinton signed Executive Order 13147 that created the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In 2002, the commission's final report made several suggestions regarding education, research, implementation, and reimbursement as ways to evaluate the risks and benefits of each. As a direct result, more public dollars have been allocated for research into some of these methods.

Individuals and non-governmental agencies are active in attempts to expose quackery. According to Norcross et al. (2006) several authors have attempted to identify quack psychotherapies; (e.g., Carroll, 2003; Della Sala, 1999; Eisner, 2000; Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Rohr 2003; Singer and Lalich 1996). The evidence based practice (EBP) movement in mental health emphasizes the consensus in psychology that psychological practice should rely on empirical research. There are also "anti-quackery" web sites, such as Quackwatch, which may help consumers evaluate particular claims.

Presence and acceptence

Opponents of quackery have suggested several reasons why quackery is accepted by patients in spite of its lack of effectiveness:
  • Ignorance: Those who perpetuate quackery may do so to take advantage of ignorance about conventional medical treatments versus alternative treatments, or may themselves be ignorant regarding their own claims. Mainstream medicine has produced many remarkable advances, so people may tend to also believe groundless claims.
  • The placebo effect: Medicines or treatments known to have no effect on a disease can still affect a person's subjective perception of their illness, even though no real cure of biological illness is effected. People report reduced pain, increased well-being, improvement, or even total alleviation of symptoms. For some, the presence of a caring practitioner and the dispensation of medicine is curative in itself.
  • The regression fallacy: Certain "self-limiting conditions", such as warts and the common cold, almost always improve, in the latter case in a rather predictable amount of time. A patient may associate the usage of alternative treatments with recovering, when recovery was inevitable.
  • Distrust of conventional medicine: Many people, for various reasons including the risk of side effects, have a distrust of conventional medicines (or of the regulating organizations themselves such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the major drug corporations).
  • Conspiracy theories: Anti-quackery activists ("quackbusters") are accused of being part of a huge "conspiracy" to suppress "unconventional" and/or "natural" therapies, as well as those who promote them. It is alleged that this conspiracy is backed and funded by the pharmaceutical industry and the established medical care system - represented by the AMA, FDA, ADA, CDC, WHO, etc. - for the purpose of preserving their power and increasing their profits. In the case of chiropractic, the case for a conspiracy was supported by a court decision, ruling that the AMA had engaged in an unlawful conspiracy in restraint of trade "to contain and eliminate the chiropractic profession."

  • Fear of side effects: A great variety of pharmaceutical medications can have very distressing side effects, and many people fear surgery and its consequences, so they may opt to shy away from these mainstream treatments.
  • Cost: There are some people who simply cannot afford conventional treatment, and seek out a cheaper alternative. Nonconventional practitioners can often dispense treatment at a much lower cost.
  • Desperation: People with a serious or terminal disease, or who have been told by their practitioner that their condition is "untreatable," may react by seeking out treatment, disregarding the lack of scientific proof for its effectiveness, or even the existence of evidence that the method is ineffective or even dangerous.
  • Pride: Once a person has endorsed or defended a cure, or invested time and money in it, they may be reluctant to admit its ineffectiveness, and therefore recommend the cure that did not work for them to others.
  • Fraud: Some practitioners, fully aware of the ineffectiveness of their medicine, may intentionally produce fraudulent scientific studies and medical test results, thereby confusing any potential consumers as to the effectiveness of the medical treatment.

Notable historical persons accused of quackery

  • Lovisa Åhrberg (1803–1866), the first Swedish female doctor. Årberg was met with strong resistance from male doctors and was accused of quackery. During the formal examination she was acquitted of all charges and allowed to practice medicine in Stockholm even though it was forbidden for women in the 1820s. She later received a medal for her work.

  • Johanna Brandt (1876-1964), a South African naturopath who advocated the "Grape Cure" as a cure for cancer.

  • Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), founder of homeopathy. Hahnemann believed that all diseases were caused by "miasms", which he defined as irregularities in the patient's vital force. He also said that illnesses could be treated by substances that in a healthy person produced similar symptoms to the illness, in extremely low concentrations, with the therapeutic effect increasing with dilution and repeated shaking.

  • D.D. Palmer (1845-1913), was a grocery store owner that claimed to have healed a janitor of deafness after adjusting the alignment of his back. He founded the field of chiropractic based on the principle that all disease and ailments could be fixed by adjusting the alignment of someone's back. His hypothesis was disregarded by medical professionals at the time and despite a considerable following has yet to be scientifically proven.

See also

Regulatory organizations

Anti-quackery organizations


  1. "Quack" - Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 7 February 2007.
  2. quacksalver- American Heritage Dictionary
  3. German-English Glossary of Idioms
  4. Quackery: How Should It Be Defined?
  5. Styles, J (2000) "Product innovation in early modern London." In: Past & Present 168, 124 – 169.
  6. Griffenhagen, George B.; James Harvey Young, "Old English Patent Medicines in America," Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology (U.S. National Museum Bulletin 218, Smithsonian Institution: Wash., 1959), 155-83.
  7. House of Commons Journal, 8 April 1830
  8. .
  9. Young, J. H. (1961) The Toadstool Millionaires: A social history of patent medicines in America before federal regulation. Princeton University Press. 282pp.
  10. Ladimer, Irving "The Health Advertising Program of the National Better Business Bureau" A.J.P.H. Vol. 55, No. 8. August 1965
  11. FTC: Operation Cure-All. Federal Trade Commission
  12. Final report of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine
  13. Scott CJ The Life and Trials of TR Allinson ex LRCP Ed Proc. R. Coll. Phys. Ed. 1999; 29:258-261
  14. The Grape Cure
  15. The Bizarre Claims of Hulda Clark
  16. Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Homoeópathy and its kindred delusions: Two lectures delivered before the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge" (Boston, 1842), reprinted in
  17. FBI files on L Ron Hubbard, Operation Clambake
  18. Virginia Linn, L. Ron Hubbard. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 24, 2005
  19. David S. Touretzky, Secrets of Scientology: The E-Meter Computer Science Department & Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, Carnegie Mellon University
  20. John Harvey Kellogg, Museum of Quackery
  21. History of Chiropractic • Carl Cleveland, Jul '52
  22. Louis Pasteur, Medical Quack • John W. Campbell, Jr., ed Analog Jun ’64


  • Carroll, 2003. The Skeptics Dictionary. New York: Wiley.
  • Della Sala, 1999. Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions about the Mind and Brain. New York: Wiley.
  • Eisner, 2000. The Death of Psychotherapy; From Freud to Alien Abductions. Westport; CT: Praegner.
  • Lilienfeld, SO., Lynn, SJ., Lohr, JM. 2003; Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. New York. Guildford
  • Norcross, JC, Garofalo.A, Koocher.G. (2006) Discredited Psychological Treatments and Tests; A Delphi Poll. Professional Psychology; Research and Practice. vol37. No 5. 515-522
  • Radam, W. (1890) Microbes and the microbe killer. New York: The Knickerbocker Press. 369pp.

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