Medical Quackery

By: Chester R. Burns

Type: Overview Entry

Published: May 1, 1995

Postponing death, relieving pain, and making money are the principal motives undergirding medical quackery. Most human beings will do almost anything to prolong their existence or to relieve the suffering of disease. Some will do almost anything to exploit these desires by selling what they claim are pain-killing remedies or life-prolonging nostrums. During the days of the Republic of Texas, Texas newspapers regularly advertised Burnham's Drops, Lin's Balm of China, Connel's Pain Extractor, Christie's Galvanic Belt, and many other alleged panaceas. "Thousands are daily quacked, out of comfort, out of temper, out of health, out of money, out of liberty, out of their senses, and finally into their graves," declared one Texan. Humbuggery abounded. The vast territory of Texas made it impossible for trained doctors to serve all families, and there was no convincing evidence that trained doctors provided remedies that were any better than the cheaper nostrums offered by entrepreneurial quacks. Saddlebags easily held pills, or bottles of tonics that often contained large amounts of alcohol and, in some cases, morphine. By the time of the Civil War, ads in the Galveston Weekly News touted Hostetter's Stomach Bitters; or Dr. Leroy's French Specific for All Affections of the Urinary Organs, and those Affections Only; or Daly's Aromatic Valley Whiskey for Medicinal Purposes; or Brown's Bronchial Troches; or Sanford's Family Blood Purifying Pills; or Old Sachem Bitters and Wigwam Tonic. Texans imbibed gallons of the tonics and ate tons of the pills, as ads for these and other nostrums appeared again and again in newspapers throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Indian Medicine shows were popular throughout the South for more than a generation, and during the 1880s Charlie Bigelow, a Bee County farmer, staged one of the greatest of all of these. He sold vast quantities of Kickapoo Indian Sagwa as a tonic for indigestion, constipation, rheumatism, and almost any other symptom or disease. His traveling show included Indian dances, trapeze artists, trained dogs, fancy shooting, and a mock Indian marriage ceremony. Those enjoying the free show usually thanked Bigelow's troupe by purchasing a one-dollar bottle of the tonic. William Radam, an Austin gardener, was another popular medical huckster in Texas. His solution, first offered in 1887, exploited a popular belief that germs caused all diseases; his mixture supposedly exterminated these germs. Exclaimed Radam, "I treated all my patients with the same medicine, just as in my garden I would treat all weeds alike." Radam made so much money that he left his Austin gardens for a New York City mansion overlooking Central Park. During the twentieth century, Texans spent thousands of dollars in support of three of America's most prominent quacks: John R. Brinkley, Norman Baker, and Harry M. Hoxsey. In 1919, Brinkley acquired a license to practice medicine in Texas. He eventually became famous as the "goat-gland doctor," a self-labeled specialist in sexual rejuvenation. Hundreds of patients flocked to Del Rio to receive "goat-gland" transplants and thereby sustain Brinkley's millionaire manner of living. In Laredo, Norman Baker lured patients to his hospital with boasts of cancer sure-cures and, in Dallas, Harry Hoxsey for twenty-five years offered similar cures to desperate patients.

Fears about the practices and fees of professional doctors; hopes for miracle cures, everlasting life, and cosmetic perfection; and the appeals of fanciful showmen and advertising tycoons who know how to exploit these fears and hopes all sustain medical quackery. Today's television ads focus especially on the elderly and those with chronic diseases, daily urging them to waste their money for nutritional supplements, wrinkle creams, and other scientifically unproven substances. In the 1980s Americans probably wasted more than $10 billion annually on such quack nostrums.

Pat Ireland Nixon, The Medical Story of Early Texas, 1528–1853 (Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Lupe Memorial Fund, 1946). James Harvey Young, The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967). James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).
  • Health and Medicine

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Chester R. Burns, “Medical Quackery,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995

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