Terrifying Old Ads for Quack Doctors

A drawing of a "successful" nose job conducted using forehead skin in 1816. (Wellcome Images)

Before there was a shortage of primary care doctors, or doctors who accept your insurance, or doctors who keep electronic records, there was a shortage of patients who were willing to visit doctors in the first place. 

In the colonial U.S., for example, "most people did not consult doctors, who charged high fees, relying mostly on home remedies, midwives, or local folk healers ... Such healers charged less and offered remedies that mimicked the orthodox," writes Elaine G. Breslaw, a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The situation in England wasn't much better—before the germ theory took hold in the late 1800s, "medicine" there came down to herbal remedies, "changes of air," trying to vomit, leeches, or praying. 

Understandably, such treatments didn't exactly lure in the sick. Thus, some turn-of-the-20th-century doctors didn't just treat patients, they actively sought them out. 

This handout, from around the 1870s, was created by a phrenologist named Thomas Moores to announce that he was "spending a short time in this town (Leeds)" and wished to visit families to analyze the "excesses and deficiencies which characterize you." The ad included endorsements, including one from an unnamed, yet "well-known," solicitor. (It doesn't matter who it is! Just trust Prof. Moores, okay?)

Wellcome Images

Meanwhile, this dentist's ad offered about the best you could expect from dental care in 1913: a full set of dentures, mounted on gold!

Wellcome Images

The first American women's medical school finally opened in 1850s, but quacks continued to flourish for several centuries. They called themselves "eclectics," because that is absolutely the best adjective to describe their mix of specialties. These ads from 1868 assured that while the doctor can help with "all diseases," she pays particular mind to "Female Diseases." And she can even compound medicines "if required." You know, if for some reason the clairvoyance doesn't work.

Wikimedia Commons

Other 19th-century female doctors experimented with early forms of family planning, offering pills to help regulate periods as well as "preventative powders" for women "whose health forbids too rapid increase of family." The latter treatment is "for married ladies only," of course.

Library of Congress

Will today's Brosurance commercials become the "To the Ladies" ads of the year 2180? Only a clairvoyant physician could know. 

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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