The 21st Century Medicine Show

“It is unethical to engage in or to aid and abet in treatment which has no scientific basis and is dangerous, is calculated to deceive the patient by giving false hope, or which may cause the patient to delay in seeking proper care.”

— American Medical Association Code of Ethics

Cool Springs Family Medicine is a general practitioner’s office just off Interstate 65 in Franklin, Tennessee. Eighteen miles south of Nashville, Cool Springs Family Medicine is the practice of Dr. Daniel Kalb, an M.D. with over fifteen years of experience. His practice, which is approaching its tenth anniversary, has largely been a pristine medical establishment — no employee firings, no malpractice suits, and not a single disciplinary action.

But Cool Springs Family Medicine isn’t a no-nonsense facility when it comes to medical treatment. While one would expect a doctor to not buy into unsubstantiated treatment practices, Dr. Kalb was not above using homeopathic remedies and essential oils to treat a variety of ailments in a variety of patients, even though such treatments are not considered scientifically and medically viable. But at the same time, these are reason why the holistic medicine crowd visit massage therapists, energy practitioners, and even chiropractors, and normally, so long as the treatment does not impede a legitimate medical emergency or cause harm itself, it’s shrugged off and justified through “placebo effect” arguments.

While claiming to balance someone’s chakras may not necessarily be detrimental in terms of health, especially if the receiver of such treatment believes in its validity, adopting an anti-vaccine policy is. Cool Springs Family Medicine has adopted an anti-vaccine policy and now tens of thousands of small children and immunocompromised persons are at risk of catching dangerous, potentially deadly, diseases to which they would otherwise likely not have been exposed.

“We will no longer be administering Vaccines at Cool Springs Family Medicine (CSFM).

How come?

1. Because they can cause Autism – yes, I’ve had 15 years’ experience in taking care of ASD kids, that’s a lot of vaccine injury stories from moms. Don’t tell me that they are making it up or they are just reaching for an explanation, or that it was a coincidence or that they are just too stressed, or that they are uninformed. All of those arguments are stupid.”

Dr. Kalb’s anti-vaccine policy is as clear a definition of medical ethics violations as they come, yet he will likely not be sanctioned over it. In fact, he will likely be allowed to continue operating under such a policy without any kind of intervention, for medicine in 21st Century, for all of it’s progress, has also taken several critical steps backward thanks to public hysteria, mob mentality, mistrust, and the continuance of quackery.

The Old Medicine Show

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An advertisement for an electric belt that claims to cure rheumatism and kidney ailments, published in the San Francisco Call on January 31, 1900.

In 19th Century America, especially in the western part of the country, it wasn’t uncommon for towns to be visited by men on horseback pulling a wagon advertising “miracle elixirs.” The purveyors of these products were normally white men, dressed to the nines for the era. They would set up in the middle of town and reel scores of people with “too-good-to-be-true” bait, a “come one, come all” rod, and a “you can trust me” smile that left many people in the dust with empty pockets, clutching a bottle of empty promises.

Disease in 19th Century America was just as lawless as the stereotypical Old West. Measles, rubella, fever, diphtheria, polio, and many other diseases were rampant, claiming more lives than bank robbers, Native American raids, and “frontier justice” combined and multiplied.

Medicine shows weren’t just a man peddling his “miracle cure,” which, more often than not, was a pretty bottle containing a concoction that was part opium, cocaine, or alcohol. They were also events, organized entertainment in a time and place where such entertainment was as scarce as actual medicine. The man posing as a doctor would promote his product and as a means to keep the crowd entertained, thus keeping them around to ensure sales, acrobats performed death-defying feats, strongmen displayed their prowess, musicians serenaded, jokes and stories were relayed with drama and hilarity, “freaks” were exploited, magicians mesmerized, and “exotic performers”entranced and ensnared. The medicine show was a profitable venture during a time when people were run down by the plainness and savagery of the untamed western North America, paranoid of epidemics, and desperate for a smile other than the crescent moon.

Wizards and Indians

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Promotional poster for Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. Image is in the public domain.

No medicine show generated more success and fanfare than both Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company and Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. Hamlin’s Wizard Oil was first produced in 1861 by brothers John Austen (a former magician) and Lysander Butler Hamlin in Chicago, Illinois. The Hamlin brothers’ tincture was primarily sold and used as a topical product, helping with rheumatism and muscle soreness and fatigue. However, the product was marketed as more, with the Hamlin’s claiming Wizard Oil could also be ingested and would be effective as a treatment for pneumonia, cancer, earaches, toothaches, headaches, diphtheria, and hydrophobia (the historic name for “rabies”).

In terms of composition, Wizard Oil was between 50 and 75 percent alcohol, which alone explains why people thought it worked. Wizard Oil also contained:

  • camphor, a plasticizer used in smokeless gunpowder, fireworks, and mothballs;
  • ammonia, a solvent that is both caustic and hazardous to humans if consumed;
  • chloroform, which depressed the central nervous system and has been discontinued as an anesthetic following several deaths due to respiratory and cardiac arrhythmias and failures;
  • sassafras, a commonly-used plant;
  • cloves, commonly-used flower buds; and
  • turpentine, a flammable solvent that can cause skin and eye irritation, spasms and damage to the lungs and cardiopulmonary system, damage the central nervous system, and can cause renal failure if ingested or absorbed through the skin.

The Hamlin’s took their show on the road and made a fortune doing so. Their travelling performance troupes advertised the product all across the Midwest, with some stops being as long as six weeks in a single location. They had horse-drawn wagons and dressed in silk hats, coats, and spats. They distributed material to attendees of their show, as well as resident druggists. For either 35 cents for a small bottle or 75 cents for a large bottle ($8.39 and $17.98 in 2015 dollars, respectively), residents of these towns would find themselves in possession of a product not only promoted and guaranteed by the Hamlin’s and their performers, but also by the “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley, whose work served as inspiration for Little Orphan Annie, composer Paul Dresser, who would later write “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” and Charles Davis Tillman, who created the southern gospel musical genre.

The medicine shows put on by Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company were family-friendly affairs, so no one was excluded on the basis of morals, which proved to be beneficial as more and more people were adopting strict, pious religious views at the time.

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Advertisement for Kickapoo Indian Sagwa featuring salesman Texas Charley Bigelow. Image courtesy of the New England Historical Society.

The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, on the other hand, did not base their business model on increasing religiosity. Instead, they used cultural appropriation to sell their product, capitalizing on the commonly-held American belief that Native Americans had deep knowledge of natural medicine.

Originally based in Boston, Massachusetts, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company was the brainchild of John E. Healy and Dr. E.H. Flagg. Before the two met, both Healy and Flagg had experience peddling cure-all products. After serving in the Union Army as a drummer boy during the American Civil War, Healy became a door-to-door salesman of vanishing creams, sold Minard’s Liniment (a patent medicine pain reliever created by the so-called “King of Pain” Dr. Levi Minard of Nova Scotia), and was even the proprietor of an Irish minstrel show. Flagg peddled his own product, Flagg’s Instant Relief, in Baltimore, Maryland, playing the violin on street corners to get the attention of prospective buyers.

Healy and Flagg joined forces and changed the name of Flagg’s Instant Relief to Kickapoo Indian Oil. With a desire to achieve the successes enjoyed by Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company and other travelling medicine shows, Healy and Flagg hired Texan Charles Bigelow to take the product on the road. Bigelow had experience in the west, acting as a scout and Indian relic collector alongside many notable figures, including Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Going by the moniker “Texas Charley,” he left his family farm in Bee County, Texas to travel with a man who called himself “Dr. Yellowstone,” donning a sombrero over his long hair and spouting humbug about the health benefits of Kickapoo Indian Oil to any poor, gullible sap who would listen and had a dollar in their hand ($24.78 in 2015 dollars).

It didn’t take long for Flagg to be ousted from the business, leaving Healy and Bigelow to run the operation themselves. They adopted a business style similar to that of the great huckster P.T. Barnum and pushed Kickapoo Indian Oil all over the nation, amassing a fortune in the process. They assured their customers that Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company products were made of “roots, barks, twigs, leaves, seeds, and berries that are the most beneficial, because they assist Nature in the right way to make her own cure.” Their patent medicines were promoted as having the ability to cure everything — “quick cures for all pains” — with Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, their most popular product, even being promoted as having the ability to purify the blood and cure all digestive ailments. Buffalo Bill Cody even endorsed it, claiming:

“Kickapoo Indian Sagwa… is the only remedy the Indians ever use, and has been known to them for ages. An Indian would as soon be without his horse, gun or blanket as without Sagwa.”

With Americans infatuated with the western frontier, anything having to do with Native Americans was eaten up by men and women alike. This contributed to the astronomical success of the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, though the use of vaudeville entertainment, fake war dances performed by Native Americans from other tribes (including the Iroquois and Plains tribes), staged marriages, dances, acrobatics, fire-eating, rifle-shooting, trained animals, and ventriloquism definitely helped as well. During this time, the headquarters of the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company moved from Boston to New York, where it was based for three years until 1887, when it moved to the “Principal Wigwam” in New Haven, Connecticut. Healy and Bigelow contracted with federal Indian agents to send them performers for room and board and $30 per month (nearly $800 in 2015 dollars), which resulted in as many as 200 Native Americans being delivered to the Principal Wigwam at a time. By 1890, over 800 Native Americans had spent the winter at the Principal Wigwam and Healy and Bigelow had so many performers available that they were running 100 troupes simultaneously as far west as Chicago and as far south as the West Indies.

By 1901, Healy and Bigelow had made a fortune and their business was moved from New Haven to Clintonville, Connecticut. The company was re-branded Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, Inc. and is believed to have changed ownership at the same time.  The next year, “Texas Charley” retired and devoted his time to travelling.

1906 and the Decline of the Medicine Show

A perfect storm of developments came along in the early 20th Century that ultimately led to the slow, agonizing decline of the medicine show. The travelling medicine show would find itself going the way of the carnival sideshow — lower and lower turnouts, consumer disinterest, and a growing repulsion of the practice. American culture changed during the reign of the travelling medicine show and those cultural changes would provide the coffin’s nails that buried these sell-by-entertainment institutions that were at one time one of the most exciting and profitable forms of entertainment in the United States.

On June 30, 1906, the 59th United States Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first of several landmark pieces of consumer protection legislation in the early 20th Century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was enacted, in part, due to public outrage stemming from the revelations contained in a series of investigative articles about the patent medicine industry written by journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams, as well as a novel by author Upton Sinclair that brought to the masses information concerning the horrifying conditions found in the United States’ meat packing industry. The Jungle, Sinclair’s novel, sought to expose “the inferno of exploitation” endured by typical American factory workers at the time, but with the public focusing on the disturbing conditions in the meat packing industry, The Jungle and it’s author found themselves used by the public to strong-arm Congress into making food and medicines more transparent. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 banned foreign and interstate traffic in adulterated or mislabeled food and drug products, directed the United States Bureau of Chemistry to inspect products and refer offenders of the Act’s guidelines to prosecution, required active ingredients be placed on the label of a drug’s packaging, and mandated drugs could not fall below an established purity threshold determined by the United States Pharmacopeia or the National Formulary. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 would also assist in the creation of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Both Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company and Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, Inc., the juggernauts of patent medicine’s golden era, felt the swift hand of transparency from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Lysander Hamlin’s son, Lawrence, was fined under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 for advertising Hamlin’s Wizard Oil as a product that can “check the growth and permanently kill cancer.” Kickapoo Cough Cure was the subject of a fine lobbied at Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, Inc. as the product contained far more alcohol than advertised.

Intervention by the federal government in the protection of consumers strengthened in 1938 with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which replaced the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and gave the FDA authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics in the United States. The 75th United States Congress passed the Act following the deaths of over 100 people due to a sulfanilamide medication that used diethylene glycol, a colorless, tasteless, practically odorless, poisonous liquid solvent, to dissolve the drug to make a liquid form. Elixir sulfanilamide was created by Dr. Harold Watkins of the S.E. Massengill Company, though he did not realize his creation was toxic when he made it. When pressed about the incident, Samuel Evans Massengill, who owned the company, denied any responsibility for the deaths. While awaiting trial, a distraught Dr. Watkins took his own life.

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Vaudeville (left), moving pictures (middle), and later radio (right) would prove to be successful entertainment alternatives to the travelling medicine show.

Beyond the legislation that hindered the ability for medicine shows to continue as they once were, cultural attitudes changed dramatically over the first part of the 20th Century. Since the late 19th Century, people had been moving away from rural areas to major cities, which was a problematic demographic shift for the travelling medicine show. This shift, coupled with the emergence of vaudeville and nickelodeons, prompted men and women to seek new, exciting, and easily accessible forms of entertainment, alienating the travelling shows. Radio would appear a short time later, allowing people enjoyment from the comfort of their own homes. Travelling medicine shows took an even bigger hit during Great Depression and they continued to disappear during the Second World War. Any that had survived through World War II then found themselves competing with television and were formally classified as a “novelty” by that point, a cultural rarity leftover from an era that felt more in the past than it should have, considering how much time had actually passed since the travelling medicine show heyday.

Interestingly, for those that did manage to survive into the television era, it was that novelty that kept them going. Travelling medicine shows became “curiosities,” their appeal stemming from the juxtaposition between them and modern, mainstream forms of entertainment brought by rapid technological and social development.

The Hadacol Caravan was one of the most famous travelling medicine shows of the 20th Century. Sponsored by the LeBlanc Corporation (which was itself owned by Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc), the Hadacol Caravan promoted Hadacol, a patent medicine vitamin tonic which boasted curative powers and a high alcohol content. The show ran through the Deep South in the 1940’s to much fanfare, even attracting notable musical acts and Hollywood celebrities. But the Hadacol Caravan wouldn’t last into the next decade. In 1951, a financial scandal destroyed it.

In the summer of 1972, a two-man show consisting of Chief Thundercloud (real name Leo Kahdot, a pitchman and Potawatomi from Oklahoma) and Peg Leg Sam (real name Arthur Jackson, a harmonicist, singer, and comedian) performed at a carnival in Pittsboro, North Carolina. The duo’s performance would be their last together. Leo Kahdot died that winter.

‘Doc’ Scott

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Tommy Scott, proprietor of ‘Doc’ Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show

While the concept of the travelling medicine show was fading more and more into popular culture’s pit of obscurity, it made one last gasp in Tommy Scott. As a teenager in the 1930’s, Scott joined the ‘Doc’ Chamberlain Medicine Show (established in the late 19th Century by M.F. Chamberlain), where he played guitar, was a ventriloquist, and performed blackface acts. Scott also pitched Chambers’ Herb-O-Lac herbal laxative, to enormous success.

When Chamberlain retired in the late 1930’s, Scott took charge of the show. He would bring aboard his family, including his wife, Frankie (formerly Mary Frank Thomas), who was a “glamour girl and comedian,” and his daughter, Sandra, who played bass, sang, and performed acrobatics. He had a long-time partner in “Old Bleb” (real name Gaines Blevis). Herb-O-Lac was phased out for a mentholated skin liniment called Snake Oil (from where the term “snake oil salesman” comes) and despite the changing times and shifting cultural attitudes, ‘Doc’ Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show continued to be a rousing success.

Along with running the medicine show, Tommy Scott was also a well-known and respected rockabilly musician. Ramblin’ Tommy Scott would share stages with the likes of Charlie Monroe and Curly Seckler. In the 1940’s he was a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the prestigious weekly stage in Nashville, Tennessee dedicated to the history and culture of country music. He was a radio regular and was one of the first country musicians to appear regularly on television. His 1949 single “Rosebuds and You” was a modest hit. His song “You Are the Rainbow of My Dreams” is considered a bluegrass standard.

Between his career as a musician and his dedication to his roots, ‘Doc’ Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show performed over 300 dates per year until about 1990. If to also consider the time the show was in M.F. Chamberlain’s possession, Tommy Scott’s medicine show existed in notable capacity for over 100 years.

Tommy Scott died in 2013, aged 96.

The New Medicine Show

It’s near impossible to procure Hamlin’s Wizard Oil or Kickapoo Indian Sagwa these days, but that isn’t to say that it is impossible to buy anything from the heyday of the travelling medicine show. After all, Listerine was once pitched in medicine shows as a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea, Bayer Aspirin was originally sold as a folk remedy, and Vicks VapoRub was originally peddled as Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve. While it would be easy to just assume the medicine show is nothing more than a “curiosity” from the past, and it would be right to assume that if speaking directly of the shows themselves, the medicine show still exists today, albeit with a different face and model.

This new medicine show doesn’t have the same allure as it’s ancestors, but has a greater one, and is, on the whole, far more dangerous.

The later years of the 20th Century saw an explosion and legitimization of quackery in a different form. Millions of people regularly subscribe to and advocate the “healing and wellness properties” of such pseudoscientific practices and philosophies as:

  • Colon cleansing
  • Homeopathy
  • Anthroposophic medicine
  • “Traditional Chinese medicine,” such as acupuncture, accupressure, and Qi
  • Biorhythms (not to be confused with chronobiology/circadian rhythms)
  • Naturopathy/vitalism
  • Applied kinesiology (not to be confused with the study of human movement)
  • Detoxification
  • “Repairative” therapy of homosexuals
  • Chiropractic medicine/innate intelligence/vertebral subluxation
  • Psychic surgery
  • Diagnoses of leaky gut syndrome
  • Body memory/repressed memories
  • Crystal healing
  • Faith healing
  • Various services and therapies offered by holistic health practitioners and massage therapists, including polarity therapy, craniosacral therapy, reiki, reflexology, and therapeutic touch.

Even with the establishment of the American Medical Association and other bodies devoted to promoting the science of medicine and the advancement of public health, pseudoscientific practices like the ones above, as well as the continuously perpetuated myth that vaccines cause autism, continue to exist, take people for suckers, and in some cases, enable serious public harm. Making matters worse is the advent of the “celebrity doctor,” the prime example of which being Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Mehmet Oz

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Dr. Mehmet Oz

Dr. Oz is the poster child for modern quackery. A cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Oz teaches at Columbia University and heads the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital when not working on television shows or writing books.

Despite his extensive medical training and credentials, it appears Dr. Oz has put celebrity in front of medicine. He has publicly endorsed alternative medicine, which is defined as any practice that is promoted as having the health effects of clinical medicine, but is not consistent with the scientific method, is not an aspect of biomedicine (the application of biological or any natural-science principles to clinical medicine), or is contradicted by scientific evidence or established science. He has also endorsed homeopathy, the belief that what causes illness in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people. He has drawn criticism for a segment on his show that mischaracterized arsenic levels in apple juice, his position as a spokesman and adviser for RealAge.com (which has been criticized for sketchy pharmaceutical marketing practices), and for an episode of his show that focused on repairative therapy, which claims to “cure” people of homosexuality, and featured Julie Hamilton of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals as a guest. The decision put him on the receiving end of swift condemnation from LGBT advocacy groups.

Popular Science and The New Yorker have criticized Dr. Oz’s endorsement and promotion of “non-scientific” medical philosophies and have both seriously questioned whether he is “doing more harm than good.”

The James Randi Educational Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to educate the public and the media on the dangers of accepting unsubstantiated claims as factual, has awarded Dr. Oz with their Pigasus Award, which is intended to “expose parapsychological, paranormal, or psychic frauds” that James Randi has noted over the previous year, on three occasions, more than any other recipient of the award: in 2009 for Dr. Oz’s promotion of energy therapies, such as reiki; in 2010 for Dr. Oz’s promotion of faith healing and mediumship; and in 2012, for Dr. Oz’s continued efforts to promote “quack medical practices, paranormal belief, and pseudoscience.”

Dr. Oz’s likeness and quotes have been used in several weight loss product scams. While he has never participated in these scams himself, he has drawn ire from the medical community for making statements that can be easily exploited by scammers. He has been studied by scientists and medical practitioners, whose results revealed that 51 percent of Dr. Oz’s medical statements had no actual basis in clinical medicine or scientific evidence, 36 percent of which were completely unsubstantiated, while 15 percent of which flew directly in the face of established science. A group of physicians even sent a letter to Columbia University, calling Dr. Oz’s faculty position unacceptable. They were answered by one of Dr. Oz’s spokesmen, who publicly criticized the physicians and questioned their integrity and qualifications.

Dr. Oz has even been subjected to an investigation by the United States Senate, during which time Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) told him, “The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of those three products you called miracles,” referring to Dr. Oz’s endorsement of pure green coffee (which was promoted as a weight-loss product), red palm oil (which, according to Dr. Oz “may very well be the most miraculous find of 2013”), and the raspberry ketone diet (which was promoted as a “miracle fat burner in a bottle”).

The main reason why actual doctors like Mehmet Oz peddling cure-alls and quackery is so problematic lies in our general trust of doctors. Even though anti-vaxxers claim not to trust doctors and conservative politicians claim not to trust certain scientists, the fact still remains that, overall, the American public puts a lot of stock in what doctors and scientists have to say. With that being said, it’s especially harmful when someone with medical credentials carries on like he’s John Hamlin or “Texas Charley” Bigelow because too many people do not go out and procure the information themselves and are instead completely satisfied by the shared value of their confirmation bias with something a doctor, a medical professional, said. Promoting a product like red palm oil on the basis of it’s “medical value” means more coming from someone named Dr. Oz than it does from a guy named Vinny in a cheap suit.

Popularity, Glamour, Guarantees, Supplements, and Lies

While Dr. Oz is the face of modern quackery, he is in no way the only person currently doing it, nor is he the only person in recent history to have done it. Quackery has always existed in some form or another, with notable accusations made against people like:

  • Thomas Allinson (1858-1918), who founded naturopathy;
  • L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986), who founded Scientology and promoted Dianetics;
  • John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), who believed holistic medicine helped the insane and also invented Corn Flakes breakfast cereal;
  • Johanna Brandt (1876-1964), who advocated that grapes could cure cancer;
  • Daniel David Palmer (1845-1913), who founded chiropractic and claimed all ailments could be treated by spinal alignment;
  • Samuel Hahneman (1755-1843), who founded homeopathy;
  • Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), who claimed he found a primordial cosmic energy called Orgone and developed devices that he claimed could use Orgone to manipulate the weather, battle aliens, and cure cancer;
  • Jim Humble (born 1932), who heads the Genesis II Church of Health & Healing and promotes the Miracle Mineral Supplement (which is claimed to cure almost every ailment from erectile dysfunction to cancer and AIDS), a tonic partially composed of sodium chlorite (a chemical found in pesticides); and
  • Andrew Wakefield (born 1957), who published a fraudulent study in Lancet that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, while simultaneously applying for patents on individual vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella.

These figures and others like them run the gamut similarly to how the Hamlin’s or John Healy did, but without the additional stress of wagon travel. Instead, these figures can hit anywhere they want at any time, thanks to connectivity and the Internet, which has proven itself to be an effective breeding ground for everything from conspiracy theories to junk science. These figures still do what was done 125 years ago — give the public a cocktail of popularity, glamour, guarantees, supplements, and lies, many of which they will drink wholesale while simultaneously handing over their cash.

Interestingly, many of us either know these are scams or at the very least have an easy means by which to realize they are scams. Most of these products and treatments are wholly ineffective and blatantly false in presentation, yet quackery continues to exist on a large scale. Researchers, doctors, scientists, and social commentators have been trying to determine “why” for decades.

Ignorance sure plays a part, as those who perpetuate quackery seem to disproportionately target the more “gullible” among us. This can be further compounded by desperation and pride on the part of the target. Sometimes clinical treatments are too expensive, forcing patients to seek out cheaper alternatives. Prescription drugs carry a king’s ransom of distressing side effects and surgery is painful and barbaric, so it actually makes sense someone fearful of the side effects of treatment would seek out an alternative. The brain is a powerful organ and has the ability to control one’s interpretation of reality. It’s also easily tricked, which leads to a “placebo effect,” or the sense that a treatment is working even when it may not be. Quackery is also exacerbated by the need to quell confirmation biases, the belief in conspiracy theories, and distrust of conventional medicine, for whatever reason.

Despite our scientific and medical advances, many of us are still terrified by mortality. The fear of illness has led to an overprescription of antibiotics, which has had a profound effect on the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The unfounded fear that vaccines cause autism has led to the re-emergence of measles. These fears are obvious, worn on the sleeve, which provides a perfect opportunity for someone to be taken advantage of, much in the same way the grieving process has left people vulnerable to fraudulent mediums like John Edward and the late Sylvia Browne and fear of the unknown leaves people vulnerable to religious frauds like Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn, and Kenneth Copeland.

The 21st Century medicine show is just as much a cavalcade of false narratives and exploitation as it was 150 years ago, with the only difference being the method of reach. Bored and excitable small town folks are now virtual patients in every major city and nation around the world, swallowing supplements like Skittles and buying false narratives wholesale, all while punching symptoms into WebMD and convincing themselves their sudden stomachache is stomach cancer and not a little gas. It’s just as profitable as it was two centuries ago, if not more so, and no one is held accountable.

Featured image by William Crochot, via Wikimedia Commons, and available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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About Robert L. Franklin

Ah, the About Me section - social networking's excuse for you sounding like an elitist prick. Hmm... what to say? What to say?
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