Articles

Visiting a Victorian Duckpond

Ever heard of George Augustus Scott? Probably not. Although he was once touted as “Man of the Century,” he was actually a charlatan who sold electric hairbrushes. (No, an electric hairbrush isn’t a device that will brush your hair for you; it’s a hairbrush that supposedly produces a “permanent electric current” to cure everything from baldness to headaches.) He went on to sell magnetic corsets, electric rings for rheumatism, and sarsaparilla, advertised as the “GREATEST MEDICAL DISCOVERY of the AGE.” (You probably haven’t heard about that greatest discovery either.)

He and his many comrades in crime are profiled in a new book, The Medical Electricians: Dr. Scott and his Victorian Cohorts in Quackery by Robert K. Waits. You will find more quacks in this book than in any duck pond. It provides historical insights and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun; similar charlatans continue to sell similar quack devices today, facilitated by the Internet and other media.

Electricity and magnetism sounded exciting to Victorian ears, but their properties were poorly understood. Great hopes were raised for medical applications. The opinions of experts varied. Priestly reported experiments from Italy and Germany in 1747-8 showing that a patient who held a vial of medicine while being electrified would get the same benefit as if he took the medicine by mouth. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was persuaded that these reports were not true.

An advertising diagram of the innards of Scott’s brushes shows a cargo cult parody of an electric battery. There is a thin piece of zinc separated from a piece of copper by a felt layer. Sure, some of the elements of a battery were there; but they weren’t put together in a way that could produce electricity. Later versions had a small embedded magnet, but since it was too weak even to attract pins, Scott included a tiny compass in each box so customers could verify for themselves that there was a magnet in the brush that could move the compass needle.

An earlier device based even more loosely on concepts of electricity was Perkins’ famous tractors, where two rods made of different metals were drawn along a patient’s limbs to remove pain. George Washington bought a set. Early skeptics tested placebo tractors made of wood and found that they worked just as well, and that the effects demonstrated were merely the effects of hope and faith.

The variety of electrical products sold by Scott and his contemporaries is astounding. In addition to all kinds of brushes and garments, there were self-lighting electrical cigarettes, electric insoles, electric toothbrushes, hair crimpers, a “hydro-electric chain,” a pocket battery to treat the eyes, and an electropathic belt.  The Actina promised to cure blindness, deafness, catarrh, and various chronic diseases. It had to be returned to the manufacturer every 4 months for recharging (at additional cost). The London Galvanic Generator was a pendant that would quickly relieve stomach, liver, and kidney complaints. The Ammoniaphone improved the voice and was endorsed by the famous soprano Adelina Patti. The patent magnetic Amynterion prevented cold feet, coughs and colds, and treated everything from paralysis to dyspepsia. Electrical products were even claimed to prevent cholera, based on an urban legend that telegraph operators were immune from that disease.

The book is exhaustive, and counting the profuse text illustrations plus two appendixes, it must contain every extant illustration of these products and their advertising. You could almost read it as a picture book: the illustrations themselves tell much of the story.

The theosophist Madame Blavatsky was skeptical, but for all the wrong reasons. She wrote that magnetic appliances could not work, because they did not connect the wearer to terrestrial magnetism (in her view, the chief source of human health).

Another early skeptic wrote in The Electrician that the claims for curative magnetism were:

…that particular combination of ignorance and impudence which in conjunction with rapacity, constitutes the worst form of quackery.

Such criticism had no impact. Sales continued to soar. The prestigious medical journal Lancet continued to accept ads for quack electrical products.

When product demonstrators at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace were found to be cheating with a concealed battery, a company representative explained:

We have to do something like this to amuse people, you know.

They relied on some of the same sales tactics we see today, from doctor-bashing (“Nine doctors in the ten are murderers”) to ecstatic testimonials, grandiose claims, and money-back guarantees. They insisted each device should only be used on one person, so you had to buy one for each family member.

One of the funniest things in the whole book is this bizarre claim of integrity from a company selling magnetic shields:

If we are attempting to impose upon the sick for money, we deserve the severest punishment the law can inflict. No living man can gain anything by writing, speaking, or advertising a falsehood. God knows it all, and honesty is the best policy.

There was a lot of in-fighting among the various medical electricians. They plagiarized each other’s ads, imitated each other’s products, sued each other, and warned against imitations. Fortunes waxed and waned. Companies went bankrupt, but the owners went on to start new companies along the same lines. “Dr.” Scott (who had no medical credentials) died a wealthy man in 1890 and his company endured long after his death.

The author brings up an interesting point. He quotes the FTC’s Deception Policy Statement:

Advertisers cannot use fine print to contradict other statements in an ad or to clear up misimpressions the ad would otherwise leave.

So it would seem that most of those “Quack Miranda” warnings violate FTC policy. They appear in fine print at the bottom of ads to say the product has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease. Isn’t that intended to clear up misimpressions in the ads?

Why did so many people endorse these bogus products? According to Benjamin Franklin:

It would be justly said, ‘quacks were the greatest liars in the world, except for their patients.’

In the early years of the 20th century, the AMA published an extensive series of articles investigating patent medicines and quackery.  Collier’s magazine published a series on “The Great American Fraud” in 1906. In response to these and other efforts, Congress passed the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. It prohibited the interstate transport of unlawful drugs, and declared misbranding to be illegal, including false and fraudulent statements. In 1912 the Pure Food and Drugs Act was amended to make it illegal to sell drugs that the manufacturers knew to be worthless. The US Post Office also acted to investigate and prosecute for fraud those who sent false advertising through the mail.

If you think regulatory measures accomplished something, I need only remind you of the recent sales of power bands. And just look at this “as seen on TV” product and the list of claims for it. Its magnets even remove “toxins.” And here’s a company that sells various products with the claim that magnets have been used for hundreds of years as a homeopathic (!) treatment for pain, edema, and swelling. The website claims that magnets improve medical conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular conditions, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, migraines and headaches, and osteoporosis. It is full of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo and demonstrably false statements. The only FDA disclaimer in the entire website is for the health claims they make for essential oils.

Even when a company does something that is clearly bogus or clearly against the law, they can make millions before the law gets around to taking action, and they gladly pay a small fine and move right on to the next scam.

I can’t exactly recommend this book as a “good read.” It beats the reader over the head with too many oppressive details. I can, however, recommend the book as a fascinating glimpse into history and a reminder that regulation has done little or nothing to discourage today’s charlatans. As a historian quoted in the book said, “…quacks and their nostrums will be with us forever.” And skeptics will always be there right along with them, investigating new quackeries and revisiting old quackeries that were investigated long ago and discarded, only to be resurrected and recycled today by a new quack.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Energy Medicine, History

Leave a Comment (11) ↓

11 thoughts on “Visiting a Victorian Duckpond

  1. Alia says:

    And don’t forget the trion:z devices that “produce negative ions to improve health”.

    1. windriven says:

      A quick scan of Pubmed didn’t lead to much of value about ionized air except for one interesting animal study*:

      “100% molecular medical oxygen (O(2)mol), partially negatively (O(2)neg) or positively (O(2)posit) ionized oxygen during 17 and 60 h. After 17 h, dityrosines, markers of oxidative injury, in lung homogenate increased in O(2)neg and decreased in O(2)posit groups vs. controls. After 60 h, dityrosines rose after inhalation of O(2)mol and O(2)neg, but not in the O(2)posit group.”

      Making the huge leap (biologically if not politically) from hamsters to humans, negatively ionized air would seem exactly the wrong charge.

      *J Physiol Pharmacol. 2008 Dec;59 Suppl 6:173-81.

  2. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    On http://skepp.be/nl/rare-apparaten/alfabetisch/full you will find an illustrated guide to over 2200 quack devices collected by Roeland Heeck. He is extending his collection all the time. If you have found a website with other strange machines notify Roeland Heeck through
    http://skepp.be/nl/contact

  3. windriven says:

    ” In 1912 the Pure Food and Drugs Act was amended to make it illegal to sell drugs that the manufacturers knew to be worthless.” Emphasis mine.

    Well my, that’s worked out well hasn’t it?

    1. kathy says:

      The difficulty lies in proving intent. It’s a loophole big enough to drive a bus through.

  4. calliarcale says:

    As always, I must plug the wonderful collection of quackery now held at the Science Museum of Minnesota (bequeathed to them upon the retirement of the gentleman who ran the Minneapolis Museum of Questionable Medical Devices), and of course also the collection of the Bakken Library, which isn’t limited to quackery but pretty much everything relevant to the history of electricity, particularly early history. If memory serves, I believe the Bakken has one of those electric hairbrushes on display.

  5. Chris says:

    That looks like an interesting book. Oh, Calli Arcale, remember the late Dr. McCoy also wrote a book about his collection, which is still in print: <a href="www.amazon.com/Quack-Medical-Museum-Questionable-Devices/dp/1891661108/".

    May I also suggest a movie that shows a fictionalized depiction of Victorian medicine, and the invention of an actually useful device now powered by batteries:
    <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1435513/?ref_=sr_1"<Hysteria.

    Enjoy. ;-)

    1. Chris says:

      Well, I really screwed up both links in that one…

      Well, Dr. McCoy’s website still exists:
      http://www.museumofquackery.com/

      And here is the IMDB of the cute movie (it does show Victorian medicine trying to address “middle class women’s complaints” in a humorous fashion):
      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1435513/?ref_=sr_1

      Here is a listen to the young folks: never drink and post on the Internets at the same time!

  6. calliarcale says:

    His website is awesome. He’s occasionally appeared on TV too, and has a wonderfully deadpan delivery. One of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s additions to the collection is an interactive exhibit where you are challenged to identify suspicious claims in advertising, and it’s had kids using it every time I’ve been there. That warms my heart to see. Perhaps it will help more people grow up with a healthy dose of suspicion for claims that are too good to be true. And they include *modern* quack gizmos too, which I think are their own addition to the collection since some of them are newer than the acquisition of McCoy’s collection, including a magnetic bracelet.

    BTW, in case you’re wondering where a science museum would stick quackery, they put it in their anthropology hall. ;-)

  7. Jacob V says:

    Harriet, I just saw this post and beyond enjoying it into made my wife and I laugh quite a bit. My wife is English and her family name is Scott…, and her father is a retired GP in the UK. And we have a copy of that add framed on the wall at home as a family joke. There’s no family relation to the electric hair brush doctor we can find weaved the add poster because it was the opposite kind of doctor my father in law was. He was a sensible practical man who told his patients to not waste their money on unproven treatments. However later in life he read a book about cancer he found interesting and which he passed on to one of his sons. This book led a brother in law and his wife to see out a Laetrile clinic in Mexico for treatment of her breast cancer. This treatment was also supported by their oncologist in the UK and resulted in delaying real medical treatment by months, not to mention the $80,000 cost to my brother in law. So while electric hair brushes may not be available through English doctors, woo and unsafe and unproven treatments seem to still be well supported in the UK medical community.

    1. Jacob V says:

      Sorry for all the typo, grammar, and autocorrect fails. I blame SwiftKey and the sun.

Comments are closed.