Medical quackery has a long history, but anyone who thinks that peddlers of snake oil and cure-alls are a thing of the past doesn't have an email account (or has the best spam filter ever made). The number of blatant come-ons I'm sent advertising "miracle" weight loss or sexual enhancement pills is so astounding -- the postmodern equivalent of the huckster shouting about his panacea powders on a street corner and skipping town as soon as he's sold a few bottles -- that I thought I'd delve into the history a bit. Turns out "quack" comes from the Dutch "quacksalver," meaning "boaster who applies a salve." (Sounds about right.)
Quack medicines (also known as "patent medicines") became popular in 17th century Britain, and were heavily imported to the US until the War of Independence (oh yeah, that thing we celebrated yesterday), when many British imports were curtailed. By the Civil War era, however, Americans had begun producing their own domestic cure-alls, which usually had no medicinal value and were sometimes even harmful to the user. William Radam's "Microbe Killer," which claimed to "cure all diseases," was actually a solution of dilute sulphuric acid and red wine. (Sounds like it might cure the user of his life right along with those diseases.) The quack business slowed down a lot in 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which removed many of the most dangerous ingredients from these so-called "medicines." But sham doctors still had plenty to do between the passage of the act and the rise of quack spam today, as evidenced by this hilarious PSA from the 50s, Stamp Out Quackery!