Ever heard of George Augustus Scott? Probably not. Although he was once touted as “Man of the Century,” he was actually a charlatan who sold electric hairbrushes. (No, an electric hairbrush isn’t a device that will brush your hair for you; it’s a hairbrush that supposedly produces a “permanent electric current” to cure everything from baldness to headaches.) He went on to sell magnetic corsets, electric rings for rheumatism, and sarsaparilla, advertised as the “GREATEST MEDICAL DISCOVERY of the AGE.” (You probably haven’t heard about that greatest discovery either.)
He and his many comrades in crime are profiled in a new book, The Medical Electricians: Dr. Scott and his Victorian Cohorts in Quackeryby Robert K. Waits. You will find more quacks in this book than in any duck pond. It provides historical insights and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun; similar charlatans continue to sell similar quack devices today, facilitated by the Internet and other media.
Electricity and magnetism sounded exciting to Victorian ears, but their properties were poorly understood. Great hopes were raised for medical applications. The opinions of experts varied. Priestly reported experiments from Italy and Germany in 1747-8 showing that a patient who held a vial of medicine while being electrified would get the same benefit as if he took the medicine by mouth. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was persuaded that these reports were not true.
An advertising diagram of the innards of Scott’s brushes shows a cargo cult parody of an electric battery. There is a thin piece of zinc separated from a piece of copper by a felt layer. Sure, some of the elements of a battery were there; but they weren’t put together in a way that could produce electricity. Later versions had a small embedded magnet, but since it was too weak even to attract pins, Scott included a tiny compass in each box so customers could verify for themselves that there was a magnet in the brush that could move the compass needle.
An earlier device based even more loosely on concepts of electricity was Perkins’ famous tractors, where two rods made of different metals were drawn along a patient’s limbs to remove pain. George Washington bought a set. Early skeptics tested placebo tractors made of wood and found that they worked just as well, and that the effects demonstrated were merely the effects of hope and faith.
The variety of electrical products sold by Scott and his contemporaries is astounding. In addition to all kinds of brushes and garments, there were self-lighting electrical cigarettes, electric insoles, electric toothbrushes, hair crimpers, a “hydro-electric chain,” a pocket battery to treat the eyes, and an electropathic belt. The Actina promised to cure blindness, deafness, catarrh, and various chronic diseases. It had to be returned to the manufacturer every 4 months for recharging (at additional cost). The London Galvanic Generator was a pendant that would quickly relieve stomach, liver, and kidney complaints. The Ammoniaphone improved the voice and was endorsed by the famous soprano Adelina Patti. The patent magnetic Amynterion prevented cold feet, coughs and colds, and treated everything from paralysis to dyspepsia. Electrical products were even claimed to prevent cholera, based on an urban legend that telegraph operators were immune from that disease.
The book is exhaustive, and counting the profuse text illustrations plus two appendixes, it must contain every extant illustration of these products and their advertising. You could almost read it as a picture book: the illustrations themselves tell much of the story.
The theosophist Madame Blavatsky was skeptical, but for all the wrong reasons. She wrote that magnetic appliances could not work, because they did not connect the wearer to terrestrial magnetism (in her view, the chief source of human health).
Another early skeptic wrote in The Electrician that the claims for curative magnetism were:
…that particular combination of ignorance and impudence which in conjunction with rapacity, constitutes the worst form of quackery.
Such criticism had no impact. Sales continued to soar. The prestigious medical journal Lancet continued to accept ads for quack electrical products.
When product demonstrators at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace were found to be cheating with a concealed battery, a company representative explained:
We have to do something like this to amuse people, you know.
They relied on some of the same sales tactics we see today, from doctor-bashing (“Nine doctors in the ten are murderers”) to ecstatic testimonials, grandiose claims, and money-back guarantees. They insisted each device should only be used on one person, so you had to buy one for each family member.
One of the funniest things in the whole book is this bizarre claim of integrity from a company selling magnetic shields:
If we are attempting to impose upon the sick for money, we deserve the severest punishment the law can inflict. No living man can gain anything by writing, speaking, or advertising a falsehood. God knows it all, and honesty is the best policy.
There was a lot of in-fighting among the various medical electricians. They plagiarized each other’s ads, imitated each other’s products, sued each other, and warned against imitations. Fortunes waxed and waned. Companies went bankrupt, but the owners went on to start new companies along the same lines. “Dr.” Scott (who had no medical credentials) died a wealthy man in 1890 and his company endured long after his death.
The author brings up an interesting point. He quotes the FTC’s Deception Policy Statement:
Advertisers cannot use fine print to contradict other statements in an ad or to clear up misimpressions the ad would otherwise leave.
So it would seem that most of those “Quack Miranda”warnings violate FTC policy. They appear in fine print at the bottom of ads to say the product has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease. Isn’t that intended to clear up misimpressions in the ads?
Why did so many people endorse these bogus products? According to Benjamin Franklin:
It would be justly said, ‘quacks were the greatest liars in the world, except for their patients.’
In the early years of the 20th century, the AMA published an extensive series of articles investigating patent medicines and quackery. Collier’s magazine published a series on “The Great American Fraud” in 1906. In response to these and other efforts, Congress passed the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. It prohibited the interstate transport of unlawful drugs, and declared misbranding to be illegal, including false and fraudulent statements. In 1912 the Pure Food and Drugs Act was amended to make it illegal to sell drugs that the manufacturers knew to be worthless. The US Post Office also acted to investigate and prosecute for fraud those who sent false advertising through the mail.
If you think regulatory measures accomplished something, I need only remind you of the recent sales of power bands. And just look at this “as seen on TV” product and the list of claims for it. Its magnets even remove “toxins.” And here’s a company that sells various products with the claim that magnets have been used for hundreds of years as a homeopathic (!) treatment for pain, edema, and swelling. The website claims that magnets improve medical conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular conditions, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, migraines and headaches, and osteoporosis. It is full of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo and demonstrably false statements. The only FDA disclaimer in the entire website is for the health claims they make for essential oils.
Even when a company does something that is clearly bogus or clearly against the law, they can make millions before the law gets around to taking action, and they gladly pay a small fine and move right on to the next scam.
I can’t exactly recommend this book as a “good read.” It beats the reader over the head with too many oppressive details. I can, however, recommend the book as a fascinating glimpse into history and a reminder that regulation has done little or nothing to discourage today’s charlatans. As a historian quoted in the book said, “…quacks and their nostrums will be with us forever.” And skeptics will always be there right along with them, investigating new quackeries and revisiting old quackeries that were investigated long ago and discarded, only to be resurrected and recycled today by a new quack.
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.