Origin of the Term “Quack”
In northern Europe, the term for mercury was “quaksilber” — a forerunner of our English term “quicksilver.” A dentist who used mercury was called a “quaksilber placer” or “quak” for short. Hence, the original use of the word “quack” was taken from dentists who used mercury for fillings. In 1986 the American Dental Association (ADA) changed its code of ethics, making it a violation for any dentist to recommend the removal of amalgam because of mercury. “Who are the “quacks” now?”
Every time someone outside, or even inside, the field of medicine makes a discovery he/she will be labeled a “quack.” The term “quack” was hurled at those who we now consider some of our greatest heroes; Jenner, Harvey, Ross, Lister, Pasteur, Ehrlich (chemotherapy), and Sister Kenny. Many herbalists were burned as witches.
How Times Have Changed
Times have changed. Today, the U.S. government puts $100 million per year into the evaluation of treatments that were scorned as quackery twenty-five years ago. Once we start to shape our writing about science to accommodate the wishes of doctors, patients or institutions, rather than the facts, we are sure to end badly.
The history of medicine is replete with tales of pioneers such as Samuel Jenner, Walter Reed, and a host of others who were maligned, then vindicated when their ideas or discoveries were proven, often to the embarrassment of the ‘experts.’
Stanley Prusiner, a neurologist from the University of California at San Francisco, has been telling the world that certain deadly brain diseases — Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the mad cow disease that caused the recent beef scare in Britain, and perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease are caused by renegade proteins that Prusiner dubbed prions, not by viruses or other infectious agents. When Prusiner first advanced his heretical theory in 1982, he was scorned and ridiculed, but today the prion theory is all but accepted, and Prusiner won a prestigious Lasker Award. Barry Marshall was a practicing physician with virtually no research experience, and he became convinced in the mid-1980s that peptic ulcers were caused by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. When he presented this heretical notion at a 1983 conference of experts in Brussels, he was all but laughed off the podium. It is now recognized that Helicobacter pylori does cause stomach ulcers and patients who formerly would have had to suffer a lifetime of pain and medication, can now be cured by a two-week course of antibiotics. Marshall won a Lasker Award and has recently been nominated for the Nobel Prize. These heresies of Prusiner and Marshall have become today’s emerging facts.
The American Medical Association labeled “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution” (1972) as ‘potentially dangerous,’ the underpinning was ‘naive’ and ‘biochemically incorrect.’ Dr. Atkins also wrote a similar book in 1990 was on The New York Times best-seller list for five years. In 2003, his approach was vindicated in part by the very medical community that derided him, as some half-dozen studies proved that those on the Atkins’ diet lost weight without compromising their health, and changed the cardiovascular risk factors and overall cholesterol for the better.
Other Historical and Recent Examples
Almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Galileo was persecuted for advocating heliocentrism.
In the 1550’s an Italian anatomist said the heart was a pump. He was burned at the stake. Seventy-five years later William Harvey said the same thing and he was knighted. What happened between these two events was that mechanical pumps came into widespread use for irrigation and mining.
Emanuel Revici, MD, treated many forms of cancer with great success for 40 years at his clinic in NY. The core of his therapy was a form of selenium. He was driven out of practice by the New York Medical Board. Many other physicians have suffered the same fate from medical boards consisting of allopathic physicians.
George Guess, MD, fought for years for the right to continue using Homeopathy in NC, and although NC, along with several other states, finally passed medical freedom laws, Dr. Guess moved to another state where alternative/complementary therapies were accepted. Medical freedom laws state that where the method of treatment is not more harmful than conventional, then patients could choose their form of treatment.
Until 1980 the AMA told physicians that it was unethical to refer a patient to a chiropractor; however in 1987 the Federal Court issued an injunction against the AMA. Two years later, half the physicians said they encouraged their patients to see chiropractors. Today chiropractors are considered part of the healing team and are on the staff in many hospitals.
About 200 years ago, in response to a severe sore throat, chills, fever, and difficulty breathing, the doctors gave George Washington the best treatment of the day. This included bleeding him (taking about half of his blood). Benjamin Rush, MD (1745-1813), considered the “Father of American Medicine,” asserted that physicians who did not bloodlet their patients were quacks. George Washington had survived smallpox and malaria and was exposed to tuberculosis and the wrath of the British army, but then met his last enemy, modern medicine. The modern medical practices of toxic pharmaceutical drugs, radiation imaging and rampant unnecessary surgeries will undoubtedly be considered barbaric 200 years from now, hopefully far sooner. Many treatments now considered alternative will become standard within the near future because of public demand for safer, less invasive, more personal treatment.
In the 1970’s, Dr. George Crile, Jr., a Cleveland surgeon angered the medical profession by insisting that some of radical procedures for breast cancer and other diseases were unnecessary; the early stages with a lumpectomy and a simple mastectomy rather than a radical one. His research made surgery simpler and safer. He encouraged patients to demand information so they could make informed decisions about their own bodies.
Toward the end of Louis Pasteur’s life, he confessed that germs may not be the cause of disease after all, but may lead to illness when the person’s immune and defense system is not strong enough to combat them.
In the 1950’s, the American Medical Association reported that smoking was not a health problem and could be beneficial. In the 1960’s they advised their patients to smoke moderately. Remember the ads in the media telling us that more doctors smoke a certain brand?
In 1847 Ignac Semmelweis told physicians to wash their hands before assisting childbirth and change soiled garments to prevent childbed fever, which killed twelve percent of the mothers. For this he was expelled from the both the hospital and the medical society.
Lister also was deemed a quack for pioneering antiseptic procedures in hospitals and opening abdomens on living patients when ethical doctors of the time never opened the abdomen until the patient was dead. The doctrines of Semmelweis and Lister were not generally accepted for more than 50 years. An unlicensed, non-MD, named Pasteur started treating human beings for rabies.
In the 1950’s, Nathan Pritikin insisted that a low fat diet could reduce heart disease. Cardiologists all over America were unwilling to believe this was true.
Dr. Jonas Salk created a “miracle” — he developed an effective polio vaccine, and within just a few years, polio nearly disappeared. Jonas Salk was shunned, insulted, and treated like an outcast by the medical establishment, both before and after his research breakthrough. He dared to challenge conventional wisdom, which maintained that vaccines should be made with weakened (attenuated, but still live) strains of the virus they were meant to prevent. Yet, Dr. Salk proved that a “dead virus” vaccine was effective. Worse, Salk was an unknown, not a recognized “top scientist.” Dr. Salk was forced to raise funds to construct what became the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California and he worked there until his death at age eighty.
Soon after, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral polio vaccine that used a live, but weakened form of the virus; however this live vaccine could cause poli,o and every year a few cases are reported. The only safe vaccines are the ones that don’t contain live organisms, weakened or not. Sabin’s attenuated vaccine fit the accepted theory of the day, and could be given by mouth, and replaced Dr. Salk’s. In Canada, the Salk vaccine is the official polio prevention.
There are many other examples of discredited ideas that revolutionized the world. Watson and Crick did scientific studies wasting their time building a big model with little balls, but look at the amazing strides that have been made since they broke the genetic code. And what about that crazy guy who believed the world was round, when everyone knew it was flat.
June Russell is a retired health educator, researcher and journalist seeking to educate the public about health issues and balance some of the media facts that are deceptive, inaccurate, or biased. Often politics, monetary gain, or the need for sensationalism influence what is reported or not reported. Some health information is flawed, deceptive, or inaccurate, and the media often omits some of the necessary facts so that the public does not get the "whole story."
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