AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Journal of Ethics Header

AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. April 2000, Volume 2, Number 4.

Images of Healing and Learning

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Medical Quackery: The Pseudo-Science of Health and Well-Being

The journal invites students to share their medical training observations captured in photographs by highlighting a historical photograph of a psychograph, a quack device used in the 19th century.

Medical quackery in the United States dates to the earliest days of the colonies when medical practice was broadly defined and poorly regulated. In 1775, of the more thana 3000 individuals who claimed the title of "doctor," fewer than 400 had formal training and certification from university medical schools.

The sheer size of the country also meant that trained physicians were not available in all areas, and even where such physicians were accessible their treatment methods of bloodletting, lancing, purgatives, emetics, and surgery — which often produced dubious results at a painful cost to the patient — were mimicked by quack physicians. To the average layman therefore, the line between the quack and the physician was easily blurred.

It is therefore not surprising that the general public was susceptible to the claims of wondrous cures and improved health and well-being made by self-proclaimed medicine men peddling tonics, elixirs, and snake oil, which were often no more than mixtures of water and alcohol. Quack physicians, who understood the powerful combination of ignorance and desperation and hope and vanity, exploited the public's wariness of medical treatment by soliciting testimonials from "patients" who claimed to have benefited from the advertised treatment. Since the therapeutic treatments of most quack physicians were never endorsed by reputable medical journals, "patient" testimonials became the route by which quacks gained their reputations. To the lay public, these testimonials formed the basis of their trust in the quack physicians' care.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, as science became part of medical thinking, quack devices became more elaborate, relying on pseudo-scientific jargon and convoluted machinery to convince the public of their medical merit. Phrenology, for example, which gained steady popularity in the early 20th century, used a psychograph. When placed on the patient's head, the instrument measured the conformation of the skull, and within 30 seconds claimed to give a report on a person's physical and mental development.

Healing and learning appear to be paired processes, occurring together throughout human activity. But nowhere are these processes as prominently seen as they are during medical training.

For most students, the medium that most readily lends itself to retaining some visual memory of a succession of fleeting moments is the camera. Through photographs, the highlights of yesterday's happenings remain vivid and communicable to others. The subtle interplay of light and shadow that renders a photograph unique may even be likened to the delicate shifts that characterize interactions between patient and physician or between student and teacher.

We invite students to send photographs portraying aspects of healing and learning. Accompany your photos with a description of what is captured in the image and the special significance the picture has for you. Through these images, students can communicate their personal perspectives on medical training and share their observations and reflections with others.

Each month, a selection of photos and descriptions will be posted on this page.

Include 1-6 large, glossy photos with:

1. Title and description of photograph(s)
2. Student's name, address, phone, e-mail, and medical school

Send your images of healing and learning to: Audiey Kao, MD, PhD, Institute for Ethics, AMA, 515 North State, Chicago, IL 60610

The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.