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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Would you use Dr. Bliss or Dr. Coffin???

In my research I have come across doctors with some pretty unnerving surnames. The oddest one was probably a Dr. Lummus who voluntarily changed his name shortly after becoming a doctor to Dr. Coffin. It was his mother's maiden name and there were reasons that changing to her surname made sense to him, but it had to give his patients pause.

"Hi Doc Lummus, I'm feelin' kinda sick. Can I come over to see you?"

"Oh, I've changed my name; I'm now Doc Coffin. How badly do you feel?"

"Uhhhhh, even worse now."

I'm certain that if I knew two doctors who seemed equally capable and one was named Dr. Coffin and the other was Dr. Bliss, I'd probably being going to Dr. Bliss. Well, Dr. Oliver Bliss of Springfield, Massachusetts wanted potential patients to know that he had even more going for him than his comforting name. His little business card tells a bigger story than its size would suggest. I'll go over it in the order that the reader would.

First, his portrait: it is very much part of the message - perhaps the central message - of the card. Although subliminal, it is very much meant to be read as much as the text. It is carefully rendered to give customers comfort. This well-groomed, well dressed, middle-aged man is the picture of wisdom, sobriety, knowledge, and confidence. In addition to looking self-assured, his expression is serene and reassuring, none of the body language that would intimate anger, confusion, doubt, or deception - you're in good hands with Dr. Bliss. There is an interesting dark ribbon in a v-shape over his vest, suggesting that he might be wearing a medallion of some honor or merit that he might have earned in his medical mission to suffering humanity (wearing such ribboned medals was very popular distinctions in Victorian America).

Right after reading his pluperfect name, we are told he was a RESIDENT PHYSICIAN - no gone-by-morning-light sort of quack. He lived where he worked; he was a pillar of the community; a good neighbor. He wanted that message to come across so clearly that he had it set in all upper case letters, even larger than his own name. (And he really was a resident of Springfield, Mass.; he is listed in the Springfield city directories from 1885 until his death in 1893, often as an electric and vitapathic physician, later as an eclectic, and still later for running a vapor bath house. i.e., steam baths.)

Now it gets really interesting. The first thing we learn about this august, conventional-looking doctor is that he promises he "Locates your Diseases, and Describes your Pains, Aches, and Bad Feelings, and no questions asked." How? Doesn't say. But if he could do that, he must be really good, huh? He was essentially making claim to some sort of psychic connection that precluded his need to ask questions - possibly through clairvoyance or mesmerism - but he was probably just a shrewd and perceptive judge of patients' aches and pains.

The back of his card further explained that he made a specialty of several illnesses: chills and feaver (as it was spelled on the card), rheumatism, neuralgia, and piles. He shows his colors some more by revealing that he cured dyspepsia with "no quinine, no mercury, but pleasant, and purely vegetable compounds," and consumption and hemorrhages "that defy the skill of old practitioners." Thus he was separating himself from the regular or conventional doctors that resorted to those medicines. Dr. Bliss was claiming to have found better methods than the standard physician and he was letting the public know he was proudly different and successful. The card back also gives short puffs for two of his own medicines, Golden Whooping Cough Syrup and Electro-Magnetic Powders for female complaints.

Whether he was mortising together or morphing through clairvoyance, mesmerism, magneto-electricity, vitapathy, eclecticism, steam baths, and proprietary medicines, Dr. Bliss used a hodgepodge of alternative methods in just an eight-year period of time, but he quacked quietly on his trade card, calmly assuring potential patients that he was as good as his name - it was a lot to live up to.

More on electric, vitapathic, and eclectic healing in future blog posts of Quack Cogitations!

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