What won’t we try in our quest for perfect health, beauty, and the fountain of youth?
Well, just imagine a time when doctors prescribed morphine for crying infants. When liquefied gold was touted as immortality in a glass. And when strychnine—yes, that strychnine, the one used in rat poison—was dosed like Viagra.
Looking back with fascination, horror, and not a little dash of dark, knowing humor, Quackery recounts the lively, at times unbelievable, history of medical misfires and malpractices. Ranging from the merely weird to the outright dangerous, here are dozens of outlandish, morbidly hilarious “treatments”—conceived by doctors and scientists, by spiritualists and snake oil salesmen (yes, they literally tried to sell snake oil)—that were predicated on a range of cluelessness, trial and error, and straight-up scams. With vintage illustrations, photographs, and advertisements throughout, Quackery seamlessly combines macabre humor with science and storytelling to reveal an important and disturbing side of the ever-evolving field of medicine.
In this informally written but well-researched history, physician Kang and journalist Pedersen expose the strange, and to modern eyes ludicrous, ways in which humankind has tried to cure all manner of diseases and afflictions over the centuries. The cures detailed in the book, which span the earliest recorded history to the 19th century, were typically based on scant scientific knowledge and often involved "cleansing" the body, whether through bowel movements, vomiting, sweating, or salivating. Ingesting dissolved gold, it was thought, could give one immortality and cure alcoholism. Bloodletting was thought effective for various ailments already in ancient times, and was often accomplished using leeches. In describing these bizarre practices, Kang and Pedersen offer a constant stream of sarcastic commentary and wisecracks, which can become wearying. The authors temper their mockery of the past, however, with the observation that, as bad as some early medical treatments could be, they were the products of experimentation that often led to effective treatments. Substances such as radium, opium and its derivatives, and strychnine eventually yielded beneficial applications, though the original applications and dosages were often fatal or addictive. Despite the book's overly flip tone, its distillation of the worst cures of all time is entertaining and informative.