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Monday, August 24, 2009

Quackery in 1803

First of all, there's really no such thing as a quack doctor. There are people who pretend to be doctors, but dignifying them with the word "doctor," even after the word "quack," is still disparaging the good name of real doctors. Calling them "quacks" is a very good descriptor, though. The quack of a duck is loud and annoying and completely incomprehensible to anyone, except perhaps those who are a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

But the problem has always been that these medical pretenders don't quack loudly enough. Their victims - the good, honest, ignorant, and desperate - are too often all too ready to take off their clothes, open their wallets, and swallow mystery liquids, powders, and pills for a person who is better qualified to make license plates than to be doctors. Why is that? Because those little quackers are so good at their real craft - deception. Quacks are either deceiving their victims or themselves.

Dr. William Buchan, whose extremely popular book, Domestic Medicine, was found in almost as many late 18th and early 19th century homes as the Bible, explained that it was often just too hard to tell the difference between doctors and quacks because they both kept secrets from their patients - the quack with his secret ingredients and the doctor with his ancient Latin and mysterious prescription symbols:
The appearance of mystery in the conduct of physicians not only renders their art suspicious, but lays the foundations of Quackery, which is the disgrace of Medicine. No two characters can be more different than that of the honest physician and the quack; yet they have generally been very much confounded. The line between them is not sufficiently apparent; at least is too fine for the general eye. Few persons are able to distinguish sufficiently between the conduct of that man who administers a secret Medicine, and him who writes a prescription in mystical characters and an unknown tongue. Thus the conduct of the honest physician, which needs no disguise, gives a sanction to that of the villain, whose sole consequence depends upon secrecy.

Maybe there's something we can learn today from this two-century old book: quacks are still quacks and they still find suckers:

No laws will ever be able to prevent quackery, while people believe that the quack is as honest a man, and as well qualified, as the physician. ... it is the ignorance and credulity of the multitude, with regard to Medicine, which renders them such an easy prey ... .
Don't just count the diplomas and certificates on your doctor's wall. Don't just assume that his fancy office, or your big bill, is evidence that he's a qualified doctor. The AMA encourages you to do so. No real doctor will protest your desire to protect yourself and your family. Check them out before they check you out.

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