22 Oct 2019
Why do we call a person who promotes fradulent or harmful medicine under the guise of medical expertise a “quack”?
The term comes from the 17th century Middle Dutch kwaksalver: a combination of kwaken (to brag, boast, or croak) and salve (ointment), meaning a quacksalver was literally a “hawker of salves”. True to their name, Quacksalvers would travel from town to town, putting on loud, theatrical affairs in order to sell their useless goods, usually bogus cure-all’s. To snare their audience, often lacking education or entirely ignorant, they’d deliver lengthy speeches full of outlandish claims and jargon to dazzle and confuse.
The charlatan was as much of a performer as he was a salesperson, and his medical show featured demonstrations, magic tricks, and other modes of entertainment to weaken the crowd’s sales resistance.
Over time, quacksalver was shortened to quack and came to mean an imposter with false claims of medical knowledge as well as an incompetent medical professional. The image of the quack doctor as a duck, or surrounded by ducks, is a common visual pun used throughout the history of comics and medicine. Examples of some comics in the gallery below.
J.J. Grandville, “Donnez moi une demi once du metique,” [18–], Courtesy of National Library of Medicine
Cornelius Veth, Quack! Der Schatten und der Korper, , Courtesy of National Library of Medicine
The Quack’s Main(e) Dose, , Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
John Cotta Title Page, , Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection
A Long Way Through a Short Life: The Oracle of Harley Street, Published by G. Humphrey, , Courtesy of Wellcome Collection