Quacks Galore!

Pillbox (Edward William John Hopley), Quack: An Ignorant Pretender, [1838], Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

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.  

The High German Doctor's Speech, [1776], Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

An etching of a Dutch Quacksalver hawking his wares. On the stage with the self-proclaimed doctor are performers to entertain and a gouty man to act as the test subject. The caption reproduces the extraordinary and outlandish claims that make up his speech.

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.