The Medical Messiahs, excerpts and comment

Posted: February 6, 2008 in Essentials
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medical_messiahs.jpgIn “The Medical Messiahs,” James Young (1916-2006) rightly details the many outright fraudulent practices that have given false hope to a public desperately seeking relief or a partial cure of their health problems. His book provides some fascinating insights into why people are duped into accepting the promise of something which by all scientific, logical or other proofs is completely without merit. The following excerpts offer an explanation about “why” people have accepted quackery and will continue to do so, in spite of all logic and proof to the contrary. This is as true of adherents to Scientology as much as those who are looking for the latest medical “cure.” Read and ponder.

The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America
James Harvey Young, PhD
Princeton Univ Press (June 1992)

PREFACE: In The Toadstool Millionaires I sought to describe the origin, development, and criticism of patent medicines in America from the importation of British brands during colonial days to the enactment in 1906 of the first federal restraining statute, the Pure Food and Drugs Act. This present book is a sequel to the former one: The medical messiahs are the 20th-century successors of the toadstool millionaires.

Many reformers who worked diligently to secure the 1906 law would not have thought that a sequel would ever be required. The editor of the Nation greeted the new law by asserting that medical quackery had now been dealt a death blow. The New York Times and the American Medical Association’s Journal also predicted the imminent doom of harmful nostrums.

In our own day, when we consider some of the trends since 1906, we too may be surprised that a sequel has proved necessary. For in the six succeeding decades the arsenal of antiquackery weapons has been vastly augmented. The rigor of legal controls has been increased. Standards of medical education have been upgraded, licensing laws improved, hospital regulations tightened. Scientific knowledge about the human body and illnesses that assail it has progressed so far that 1906 seems by comparison a dark age. In that year there was but the merest hint of the coming revolution in chemotherapy. The educational level of our citizenry has been markedly raised. Surely, if not in 1906, at least in 1966, amid all this enlightenment and law, quackery should be dead.

But of course it is not. Indeed, it is not only not dead; never in previous history has medical quackery been such a booming business as now. A reasonable guess as to the “overall annual quackery take,” estimated John W. Miner, a lawyer in the district attorney’s office of Los Angeles County who specializes in medicolegal crimes, speaking in October 1966, would be two or more billion dollars. “It exceeds,” Miner went on, “the research total expended on disease.”


“There is a class of minds, much more ready to believe that which is at first sight incredible, and because it is incredible, than what is generally thought reasonable.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1842

“Quackery . . . is the legitimate offspring of ignorance.” So asserted an orator in the opening of a new medical school in Nashville in 1851. Certainly ignorance remains one of medical quackery’s major props. “Many people . . . ,” asserted a recent Food and Drug Commissioner, “know little more about the human body than if they had lived a hundred years ago.”

Part of the untrue knowledge concerning health that handicaps laymen is the incorrect relationship among facts. Man’s reasoning seems to flounder particularly, commented a 19th-century observer, when the issues relate to matters medical, the “most difficult, obscure, and complicated” of all branches of human learning. It remains true that, in this vast morass, he who seeks to guide himself by the same commonsense cause-and-effect logic he applies to certain other aspects of life may well get stuck.

How much more would this apply to the unseen world of the spirt of man? If we can be convinced that there are a myriad of defects there, the world of “cures” is virtually unlimited.

“Ailment plus medicine equals cure” is an equation widely cherished as true. But the algebra is not so simple. Countless times, of course, the true equation is “Ailment plus Nature equals cure, and if any drug is added its value is zero. Why, a physician once asked, was quackery more prevalent in medicine than in other areas of science? “Because,” he answered himself, “the medical quack attributes to himself what is due to Nature.

Since “symptoms equal disease” in the mathematics of credulity, the quack can go a step further in tampering with the equation. He can, through his promotion, substitute false symptoms for real symptoms. He can convert normal physiological conditions, like low spirits, tiredness, mild insomnia, spots before the eyes, into dire harbingers of syphilis and insanity.

Hello! Can you spell “E-Meter” with a capital “E” for ENGRAM? Take a Personality Test or a Stress Test and you are definitely going to have a mental “ailment.” And surprise, we just happen to have the “cure” for this dread disease that we’ve just discovered.

In this province of ill health, then, a series of suggestions and counter-suggestions may, in the very susceptible, actually create an ailment where none existed and then remove the ailment, all for a price.

The Nashville orator of 1851, after calling quackery “the legitimate offspring of ignorance,” went on to say that quackery could “only be abridged by elevating the standard of medicine and disseminating a correct public sentiment.” In “an intelligent community,” he added, reflecting an optimism often echoed since, quackery could not flourish. Medicine has certainly been elevated since this orator spoke, and education vastly augmented. Since, in view of this, quackery has not been vanquished, commentators have raised the question as to whether ignorance alone is a sufficient explanation for quackery’s persistence, or at least whether ignorance must not be defined so as to include something more than mere lack of adequate facts plus fuzzy logic. Respectable medical historian, Fielding H. Garrison, referred to a “fetichistic instinct,” a “primitive craving for the supernatural which is ever latent in man.” This craving he saw as a common aspect underlying primitive medicine and modern quackery. It is sometimes tempting to believe in an emotional vaulting toward the occult, something positive in itself and not merely an act of bad judgment made on the basis of wrong premises and incorrect information. Rabbits’ feet afford a steady market in America, at prices ranging from a dime to five dollars. Charms, voodoo bags, and love potions have been said to bring in a million dollars a year from residents of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana alone.

If not so deeply implanted as an instinct, the proneness to quackery may often be related to personality structure. Among the victims of medical charlatanry are many who make their decisions on grounds almost belligerently anti-intellectual. Before elaborating this point, it needs to be stressed that “intellectuals” are not immune to quackery. “I do not know,” Erasmus wrote centuries ago, “whether out of the whole world of mortals it is possible to find one who is wise at all times of the day.” The quack can erect a beautifully logical structure on the basis of one false but plausible premise. Countless intelligent and educated men have missed the premise, admired the logic, and been trapped. Indeed, it has been argued that the highly literate man, familiar with words and self-assured about their use, may be even more susceptible than his less literate fellow when approached outside his field of expertise with a well-structured and persuasive piece of prose.

Suffering, of course, may also sweep aside the intellectual defenses of the very bright. Jerry J. Walsh, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation, himself an arthritis victim, explained for some Senators how this might be.

“But I can guarantee any of you gentlemen, he said, “that if you are in this bed of pain with arthritis, you will try anything to stop the pain, at any cost. You say, ‘What have you got to lose?

Often, if not most of the time, it is the promise of relief of “mental” suffering that is the bait by which the innocent individual is hooked to Scientology. “We can make those nasty feelings disappear,” says the smiling young man or woman.

It is sad enough that men of high intelligence and great capability should, through such suffering or through a distortion in their perception, become merely the customers of pseudo-medicine. It is even sadder that the gifted but misguided have now and again used their great influence to champion the quack or even, like the engineer who devised the MicroDynameter, to enter upon dubious careers.

Does it begin to appear as though there are some similarities as we overlay this study on top of the Pseudo-religion known as Scientology? It is at this point that we may refer to Tom Cruise and others who are relentless promoters of this “most powerful force on earth.”

No one, therefore, can afford complacency, thinking himself forever immune from the quack’s ingenious appeals. Yet there are not enough errant intellectuals among us to keep quackery flourishing. The poorly educated do after all pay most of the bills. Among them is a group motivated, it would seem, by something more than sheer lack of knowledge. Some sort of alienation, some sort of perversity, drives these people to follow the most extreme pathways. Often they share with others not so far out as themselves a deep resentment against orthodox authority.

Besides criticizing reputable medicine,
the quack also lauds his own alleged miraculous cures. Here too he finds an eager hearing with a segment of the people. “There is a class of minds,” wrote Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes over a century ago, “much more ready to believe that which is at first sight incredible, and because it is incredible, than what is generally thought reasonable. Credo quia impossibile est.”

Some emotionally immature people, Dr. Bernard suggested, carry over into adulthood the magical thinking common in childhood, “along with an excessive inner sense of their own vulnerability and a corresponding exaggeration of the power of others to harm or protect them.” When trouble comes—sickness or stress of some other kind—their fear of death or bodily harm may be exaggerated to an excruciating degree. So too may their trust be exaggerated in him who offers a “get well quick” solution. Reliance on a quack seems to provide a hopeful alternate course to the “effort, frustration and risks of failure which are essential to realistic success in overcoming or improving the stressful situation.” The “Medicine Man” is endowed in the believer’s mind with the childhood image of “parental omnipotence” over life and death.

The sense of hopelessness making some people prone to quackery, Dr. Bernard asserted, may rest in various emotional problems, much of the mechanism unconscious. Some persons are frustrated because their fantasies of achievement far transcend their capabilities to perform. Their goals, indeed, may be impossibly idealistic, involving “cravings for ‘perfect beauty’ or other forms of inordinate excelling.” Other people “have come to feel it futile to compete in ordinary ways for the rewards of a hostile rejecting society.” Among the various categories of the hopeless, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, are to be found the most committed of quackery’s converts. People of this personality type can seldom be weaned away from their loyalty by rational appeals; a challenge to their delusion only strengthens its hold.

With that conclusion, I present to you L. Ron Hubbard … Quack Extraordinaire! Take a bow, Ron! You’re the King of the Medicine Men. The Ultimate Quack Doctor.

The modes of thought, feeling, and action of those committed to the most extreme pathways are often reflected not only in the pursuit of health but also across the whole range of life’s concerns. The implications are significant not merely for those who would seek to counter quackery by education, but also for those dedicated to preserving a healthy democracy.

Knaves there will always be, and fools — whatever the justification for their folly — and, therefore, pseudo-medical deception.


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