10 Quack Treatments That People Actually Once Believed In (2023)

Back in the Stone Age, when man was still learning what worked and what didn't, it was acceptable to cure diseases using a little trial and error.

Over the centuries, microbiologists and pharmacists have sussed out what really works and how we can use them. But alongside the development of modern medicine, quacks have had a field day preying on vulnerable patients. They have successfully recommended some of the most ridiculous treatments ever.

Did you know that at some point in history, it was believed that by getting a king to touch you, all illnesses could be cured. Edward the Confessor, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I were all thought to have this 'healing' touch. Rulers like Henry VIII 'blessed' gold coins or medals and gave them to sick people to hang on their necks.

Back then, people tended to believe just about anything; including whichever quack said his cure worked. Bonus points if he could 'prove' it too. How else would you explain the sale of water as a cure-all?

Yes, William Radam sold water as a cure-all remedy in the 1880s. Building on the recent discovery that microbes cause diseases, Radam concocted his Microbe Killer medication. He claimed the tonic could purify the body and rid it of microbes. With a few 'cured patients' to his name, Radam began to mass produce the Microbe Killer. His tonic was made by mixing the water vapor with a mix of sulfur, sodium nitrate, manganese oxide, sandalwood, and potassium chloride. Until his death in 1902, he made a fortune selling a concoction that was deemed by the Department of Agriculture to be 99.381% water.

Thank goodness for the FDA these days, right?


Even after its inception in 1906, quacks have continued to create 'alternative' medicines. The following are some incredible quack treatments that people believed in, used and some are still available today!


10 Gripe Water

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Originally invented in 1851 in England, gripe water was used to provide relief to babies suffering from teething pains and colic. Imported to the USA in 1903, gripe water seemed like the perfect treatment for crying babies. They just seemed to 'pass out' after a few drops.

Research shows that one of the reasons (probably the main reason) that gripe water worked so well was down to its ingredients. Gripe water contained sodium bicarbonate, dill seed oil, sugar, water and alcohol. Different brands had alcohol content ranging from 3.2% to 9%!

Yes, babies were 'feeling better' simply because they were instantly tipsy. For a 4 kg infant, the recommended dose of a 3.5% solution would be equal to five shots of whiskey in a 80kg adult.

In 1993, the FDA ordered a ban on importing gripe water, which led to a change in the formulation.

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9 Radiation Therapy

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It's hard to believe now, but 19th century quacks managed to convince people that exposure to radiation was somehow good for them. This led to a boom in the 'invention' of different types of radioactive 'health products'.

From 1918, William J.A. Bailey sold “Radithor”, a solution of radium in water, to patients in a bid to 'cure' them of chronic fatigue. One wealthy patient, Eben Byers, drank over 1, 400 bottles, before succumbing to death by radiation poisoning.

In the 1920s, the Radium Ore Revigator Company sold a ceramic water dispenser lined with uranium ore. The rationale at the time was that 'regular' water was denatured but by leaving it in this jug, it would be infused with the radiation it 'needed'. Researchers found that the Revigator released more than twice the maximum radiation advised, and also released lead and arsenic, into the water.

8 Cellular Medicine

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Some call Dr William Rath “the most powerful crackpot on the Earth.” A certified doctor turned vitamin salesman, he claims to use cellular medicine (via his vitamins) to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS. According to him, cellular medicine “...can prevent, treat and eventually eradicate today's most common diseases.

His company, the Dr. Rath Health Foundation has been sued by various governments who condemn his claims. He is known to use scare tactics in advertisements to dissuade people from using conventional medicines.

In 2008, he ventured into South Africa, with the bold claim that he had the cure to the country's AIDS epidemic. The government at the time entertained his theories and gave him free rein to run clinical trials. When his claims were found to be false, one study claimed that 170,000 avoidable HIV infections occurred between 1999 and 2007, when he was active in the region.

7 Colorpuncture

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In the 1960s, people actually believed in a healing that “balanced acupuncture, holistic healing and spirituality.” Based on the belief that all sickness was caused by an imbalance in the mind and body, Peter Mandel claimed to be able to bring it all back into harmony.

He claimed to do this using acu-light therapy. This involved applying different lights at different color frequencies to known acupuncture points. His firm, the Esogetic Colorpuncture Institute, claims that applying the focused acu-light in the right places in the body can cure everything from migraines to breathing problems to learning disorders in kids.

6 Transorbital Lobotomy

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Lobotomy is the controversial surgical procedure where the skull is drilled and neural connections severed in a bid to relieve mental disorder. Being a painful procedure requiring drilling, practitioners looked for ways to carry out painless lobotomies.

A prominent neurologist, Walter Freeman, devised one 'easy and convenient' method. His method involved first rendering the patient unconscious through the use of an electroconvulsive shock machine. He then proceeded to insert a sharp ice-pick in the inside corner of the eye and tapped away with a small hammer.

He did this until the pick broke through the skull and entered the front lobe of the patient's brain. He proceeded to wiggle the object around to sever neural connections. At the time, these practitioners felt they could cure mental illness, depression, OCD and ADHD, using this procedure.

5 Sun Gazing

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From a young age, we've learned that staring into the sun without protection is a very bad idea. The sun's harsh UV rays can cause eyelid cancers, cataracts and corneal sunburn. However, ophthalmologist William Bates advised people to stare into the sun to keep eyes healthy and maintain sharp vision!

He claimed that exposure to the full spectrum of light, which can only obtained from sunlight is required to keep eyes functioning at a healthy level. Regular sun gazing, eye exercises including tracing a figure eight around the Sun while staring into it, are a few of his recommendations. He even suggested exposing only the sclera (the white part) of the eye to the sun.

Till date, the 'Bates method' is still sold on the Internet, though they recommend these exercises be done with sunglasses now.

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4 Testicle Transplants

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Before the invention of pills to treat ED, before testosterone and HGH injections, men who felt less virile had no cures available to them. Along came the 'goat gland' doctor, Dr. John R. Brinkley, who convinced men that implanting goat testicles alongside theirs would solve all their sexual problems.

During his surgeries, he simply placed the animal testicles beside the male testes; there was no grafting of blood vessels, seminal vessels, no fusion of any kind. He claimed that 'the flow of extra testosterone' would revitalize their waning sex life. He succeeded in performing over 16, 000 of these gland transplants and even hosted a radio talk show, until he was busted for not having finished medical school.

3 Urine Therapy

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This centuries-old practice refers to any of the methods of using human urine for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. For a long time, people have believed that drinking this bodily excretion is somehow good for you. And it's still in practice today.

Animal waste has found a wide range of uses in the development of civilization, everything from use as building material in Britain to softening stiff leather. However there is NO scientific evidence that urine can be used to treat any ailments. That didn't stop the Romans from using it as they believed to aid teeth whitening.

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2 Female Hysteria and its Cure

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In Victorian times, 'female hysteria' was a common disorder; this vague term was used to describe anything from mood swings to depression. Its vague symptoms included loss of appetite, anxiety, nervousness, fainting etc.

Doctors at the time believed hysteria was caused by sexual deprivation. The recommended cure was a thorough pelvic massage. Once a week. By a qualified doctor.

Yes, beingsexually touchedby a doctor was believed to be the cure for the 'ills' of women in the 1860s. The doctor would manually stimulate the female genital area until the patient experienced repeated “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasms). It is claimed that when doctors got tired of doing this 'procedure ' by hand, in 1873, the first electro-mechanical vibrator was developed.

1 Laetrile

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This synthetic molecule, a close sibling of amygdalin was patented in the USA, around the 1970s. A chemist, Ernst T Krebs, claimed that it was a vitamin that could cure cancer. This claim was to help it be classified as a nutritional supplement and escape the scrutiny the FDA used when classifying drugs.

The laetrile pills were supposed to work by producing hydrogen cyanide which would selectively destroy cancer cells in the body. The laetrile medication was supposed to be able distinguish between cancer and healthy cells. This was supposedly because cancer cells posses certain enzymes that are absent in healthy cells. This false rationale led to many patients deaths from cyanide poisoning.

Quacks still abound today, they prey on the hope of people. But because people will always have unrealistic hopes, quacks can still peddle poisonous substance and label them medicine.

Sources: quackwatch.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, theguardian.com, kshs.org, muse.jhu.edu, onlinelibrary.wiley.com


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What were the cures for diseases in the Middle Ages? ›

Their cures were a mixture of superstition (magic stones and charms were very popular), religion (for example driving out evil spirits from people who were mentally ill) and herbal remedies (some of which are still used today). Monks and nuns also ran hospitals in their monasteries, which took in the sick and dying.

How did people try to prevent the Black Death? ›

Social Distancing and Quarantine Were Used in Medieval Times to Fight the Black Death. Way back in the 14th century, public health officials didn't understand viruses, but they understood the importance of keeping a distance and disinfecting.

What were the cures for the plague in 1665? ›

Cures. The cures in 1665-1666 were similar to those used in the 1348-1349 Black Death outbreak. Bloodletting and purging were widely used, showing that the four humours were still believed to cause disease. Plague doctors wore outfits to protect them from coming into contact with victims.

What are some examples of off-label drug use? ›

Category and drugOff-label use(s)a
IsofluraneSeizure, status epilepticus
DonepezilFrontotemporal dementia23
GabapentinBipolar disorder, diabetes, fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain symptoms, headache, hiccups, hot flashes, restless leg syndrome24
LidocainePostherpetic neuralgia24
53 more rows

How did early humans cure diseases? ›

Prehistoric humans probably had their first medicinal experiences through eating earth and clays. They may have copied animals, observing how some clays had healing qualities, when animals ingested them. Similarly, some clays are useful for treating wounds.

How did ancient people treat diseases? ›

Many cultures in ancient times treated illnesses with magic and herbal remedies. People believed that the supernatural powers of a shaman (sha-man), also known as a medicine man or witch doctor, healed the sick. Ancient Egyptians thought that their gods healed them.

Did plague doctors actually help? ›

Plague doctors rarely cured patients, instead serving to record death tolls and the number of infected people for demographic purposes. In France and the Netherlands, plague doctors often lacked medical training and were referred to as "empirics".

What stopped the plague? ›

The eventual weakening of the pandemic was likely due to the practice of quarantining infected people that originated in Venice in the 15th century and is with us to this day. Improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and medical practices also played a role in ultimately slowing the plague's terror march.

Did leeches cure the plague? ›

Leech Blood-Letting

The most popular attempt to cure the plague was bloodletting using leeches. It was thought that the leeches would draw out the bad blood that caused the disease and leave the good blood in the body.

How did they prevent disease in the Middle Ages? ›

Treatment: Prayer, quarantine, fasting, smoking tobacco to ward off miasma + Plague Doctors. Prevention: Local governments tried the following: banning public meetings, closing theatres, sweeping the streets, burring barrels of tar and sweet smelling herbs to ward off miasma, killing cats and dogs.

Was there medicine in the Middle Ages? ›

In medieval Europe, medicine generally operated within the context of the Christian Church. Hospitals which cared for the elderly and the ill were often run by religious orders, which could maintain infirmaries for their own members and operate hospitals for others.

Did medicine in the Middle Ages work? ›

Indeed, the medieval salve was actually a powerful antibiotic. The finding threw everyone's medieval preconceptions upside down and led the researchers to conclude that medieval medicine was highly developed and followed a scientific methodology.

What were 4 diseases in the Middle Ages? ›

Common diseases were dysentery, malaria, diphtheria, flu, typhoid, smallpox and leprosy.


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