Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

Snake-oil and quack medicine

Magic Potion

In his speech Consumption: Its Cause and Cure, Halliday Sutherland remarked on the vulnerability of tuberculous people to quack doctors and snake oil merchants:

…where the carcase is there shall be the eagles be gathered together.  In his newspaper he reads the advertisements for quack medicines and to Cagliostro and his breed he sends all the money he can spare.  Yes!  All.  All that a man hath will he give for his life.  Five years ago a Parliamentary committee was appointed to enquire into the extent of this evil, and—nothing has been done.  On the field of battle those who rob the wounded are shot down like vermin; but here at home no punishment is meted out to the vultures who rob the suffering, the ignorant and the dying.

“Cagliostro” was a con-man born in Palermo in 1743. The extent of his success is evident when you find out that his “real” name was “Joseph” or “Giuseppe” Balsamo – no one is certain – and when you read about his activities, in the guise of  “Count Alessandro di Cagliostro”, in a chapter in P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages.

Sutherland himself had personal experience of the snake-oil merchants as he related in Arches of the Years. He wrote:

The remedies for consumption are legion. They blossom and fade like the flowers in spring. There was one remedy much advertised by the medical press. It was prepared by a company, and the secretary called on me and asked me to give it a trial. He left enough of the stuff to treat three cases, and I selected three patients with advanced disease. A month later the secretary called again, and I told him the three patients were dead.

“You don’t suggest, Doctor, that our remedy had anything to do with their deaths?”

“Certainly not. So far as I could see, your remedy had no effect on them one way or the other.”

“Doctor, I have brought some more of the remedy. Could you not try it with more suitable cases, earlier and more hopeful ones?”

“That would be no test,” I answered. “Give me a case sufficiently early, and I can cure it with tuberculin, cod liver oil, and an open window.”

“Yes, Doctor, but my directors are very anxious that you should give our remedy a further trial. Of course we understand the strict etiquette of the medical profession. It would not be possible to offer you a fee, but my directors would like to allot you one hundred shares in the company.”

“Shares!” I said. “As I don’t believe in your remedy I am not likely to take shares in your company.”

“Doctor, you do not understand. You would pay nothing for the shares, and there would be an honourable understanding that if you wanted to dispose of them the directors would buy them back from you for one hundred pounds. I hope I make myself clear?”

“One thing is quite clear,” I answered. “You and your directors think I can be bought for one hundred pounds. The insult is not great enough. Clear out.”

From The Arches of the Years

Examples of quack medicines, and the interesting stories behind them, can be found at thequackdoctor.com. Go there to read about Derk P. Yonkerman’s Tubercolozyne, Crossthwaite and Co’s Occult Lozenges and Nelson’s Mixture for Diseases of the Lungs. Another was Addiline which contained: “petroleum oil with a certain amount of pine oil or oil of thyme, possibly a mixture of several essential oils,” thirty-five cents worth, no less, sold to you in a bottle for five dollars.

One comment on “Snake-oil and quack medicine

  1. Pingback: Consumption Stories 5 | Halliday Sutherland

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This entry was posted on 15 January 2015 by in London, Tuberculosis.

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