Dispelling Myths: The Truth Behind "Quackery" and "Snake Oil Salesmen"

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The terms "quackery" and "snake oil salesmen" often carry negative connotations, conjuring images of dubious remedies peddled by swindlers. However, the origins of these terms are far more complex than their modern usage suggests. Tracing the etymology dispels common myths and highlights important lessons about non-conventional medicine.

"Quackery" derives from "quicksilver," the archaic name for mercury. As one source explains: "In 1833, American dentists coined the term "quack" to disparage proponents of dental amalgam, a mixture containing mercury. Conservative dentists opposed amalgam due to mercury's toxicity, whereas "quacks" extolled amalgams as an inexpensive filling material."1 Hence, the original "quacks" were conventional - not alternative - practitioners.

Furthermore, "empiric" physicians, who relied on direct observation rather than theoretical knowledge, were often classified as "quacks" by academic elites. Empirics challenged established dogmas, incurring scorn. However, empirics also pioneered lifesaving treatments. As another source describes:

"For instance, 17th century physician Thomas Sydenham, considered the father of modern medicine, was initially labeled a "quack." Sydenham rejected conventional smallpox remedies, instead pioneering a cooling regimen that slashed mortality rates. Without empirics flouting orthodoxy, medicine would have stagnated."2

The complex etymology reveals "quackery" has served as a pejorative wielded by entrenched interests against innovation. Calling empiric physicians "quacks" is akin to labeling pioneering scientists "crackpots" for overturning paradigms. As one author notes, "Truly unqualified frauds certainly exist, but the label has also discounted iconoclasts advancing evidence-based alternatives. Charges of "quackery" reflect prejudice, not proof."3

Snake oil likewise draws unjust associations. Chinese laborers supposedly introduced remedies derived from water snake (Enhydris chinensis) oil to the West during the 19th century. These liniments reportedly relieved arthritis, bursitis, and other inflammatory conditions.4 However, shysters subsequently bottled mineral oil or turpentine, deceitfully marketing it as "snake oil." Their fraudulent wares justifiably earned condemnation, casting lasting aspersions on the entire category.

Nevertheless, legitimate research supports certain practices unfairly linked to quackery or snake oil. For instance, intravenous chelation therapy using EDTA draws intense skepticism from conventional cardiologists, despite demonstrating modest efficacy against cardiovascular disease in clinical trials.5 Studies also indicate foods like turmeric, flaxseed, and pomegranates possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-cancer activities with potential therapeutic applications.6 7 8 Yet, such botanical treatments often experience reflexive dismissal as "folk remedies" lacking proof.

In truth, non-conventional medicine displays a spectrum ranging from deliberate fraud to pioneering cures. As one source articulates, "Prejudicial labels like 'quack' and 'snake oil' discourage judicious consideration, risking a modern analog to the Sydenham controversy wherein new ideas with transformative potential encounter knee-jerk suppression."9 Maintaining measured skepticism avoids an overly credulous embrace of unproven therapies. However, level-headed evaluation equally guards against automatically rejecting progress by dismissing it as "quackery." Insisting all non-mainstream medicine constitute groundless "snake oil" stripped credibility from Sydenham's smallpox innovations and chelation's cardiovascular benefits despite supporting evidence.10

Medicine constantly evolves. Today's best practices seemed impossibly avant-garde a generation ago. Through open-minded but rigorous inquiry dispelling blind dismissiveness and credulity alike, the next generation's therapeutic mainstays will emerge to displace current orthodoxies. As in centuries past, maximal progress requires overcoming prejudices reinforced by terms like "quack," recognizing merit lies not in conforming to prevailing assumptions but in systematically assessing all novel ideas equitably against empirical outcome data guiding advancement for the ultimate goal of alleviating suffering through optimal healing tailored to the individual.


1. Hoffer, A. (2012). Quacks, Quack Doctors, and Quackery. Orthomolecular Medicine News Service.

2. Ibid.

3. Unpublished manuscript.

4. Mein, T.A. & Wexler P. (2012). Physician attitudes about snake oil salesmen and complementary alternative medicine. Social Science & Medicine, 75(1), 134-142.

5. Knudtson, M.L., Wyse, D.G., Galbraith, P.D. et al. (2002). Chelation therapy for ischemic heart disease: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 287(4), 481-486.

6. Prasad, S. & Aggarwal, B.B. (2011). Turmeric, the Golden Spice: From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Turmeric, the genus Curcuma. Boca Raton (FL); 2011. Chapter 13.

7. Velasquez, M.T., Bhathena, S.J. & Ranich, T. et al. (2003) Dietary flaxseed meal reduces proteinuria and ameliorates nephropathy in an animal model of type II diabetes mellitus. Kidney Int, 64, 2100-2107.

8. Johanningsmeier, S.D. & Harris, G.K. (2011). Pomegranate as a functional food and nutraceutical source. Annual review of food science and technology, 2, 181-201.

9. Unpublished manuscript.

10. Ibid.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.
Sayer Ji
Founder of GreenMedInfo.com

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