Trespassing Journal

Quackery in American Moving Pictures, 1921-1959

Eric W. Boyle


Medical subjects established a secure place in the early history of filmmaking. Historian Martin Pernick has identified over thirteen hundred films made before 1928 that explore the subjects of doctors, health, and medicine (1996, xvii). Many of these films touched on controversial topics including abortion, birth control, mental illness, sexual hygiene, childbirth, euthanasia, and eugenics. In the book Medicine’s Moving Pictures, the authors note that medical films attracted “producers, writers, actors, and cinematographers who wanted to make them, and commercial sponsors who wanted to show them” (5). Meanwhile, a wide range of actors—from health professionals, philanthropists and government officials to social commentators, ministers, reformers, and educators—set out to harness and control the influence of these films.

Medical quackery remained a topic of particular concern for reformers in the early twentieth century, and moving pictures proved to be an invaluable tool in an ever-expanding arsenal devoted to ridding the medical marketplace of nostrums and charlatans. While a number of historians have documented the ways in which countless Americans have learned about health, disease, and doctors through moving pictures, this article examines how films and television programs perpetuated stereotypes of alleged quacks, thereby defining the boundaries of therapeutic acceptability in dramatic terms. Depictions of quackery simultaneously encouraged audiences to embrace the prevailing ethos of mainstream medical professionals and the new health-related practices they advocated. They modeled actions to be performed by viewers to protect themselves from predatory practitioners. They offered a unique forum for conveying the nature of serious medical issues. Ultimately, films and television programs perpetuated positive and negative stereotypes of medical professionals, and their allegedly “unprofessional” counterparts, which had both intended and unintended consequences (Burnham 45-50).

My book Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-Century America illustrates how reformers intent on launching a crusade against the forces of quackery in the early 1900s faced a difficult challenge—the success of education as a primary tool for reform depended on the validity of the assumption that people made poor choices due to a lack of knowledge (xvi-xvii). As it turned out, people did lack knowledge about what made a medical therapy work or not, but they also chose a wide range of alleged forms of quackery for a variety of other reasons including personal preference, dissatisfaction with conventional medical options, and the ready availability of cheap treatment options.

Scholars have used the framework of “boundary making” to describe the cultural process of knowledge-making whereby science is delineated from pseudoscience, or where the domain of the physician and the patient is negotiated, but I argue that it can also be applied to the effort to establish, enlarge, and police the boundaries of therapeutic acceptability in the twentieth century (Gieryn 790; Brieger 421). Attacks on alleged quacks rested on the belief of reformers that doing so would help instill confidence in the authority of physicians and thereby shape decisions made by consumers. While this was undoubtedly an effective strategy in many cases, Quack Medicine shows how the standard historical narrative exaggerates the extent to which professional authority determined the therapeutic choices made by the public and physicians alike. Therapeutic reformers could measure their success in the proliferation of new regulations, new institutions, and innovative therapies, but alleged quack alternatives maintained their positions in the marketplace (Boyle 91-96). The fact that anti-quackery films and television programs remained a staple for more than three decades from the 1920s to the 1950s validates their popularity but also suggests their limited impact on medical consumers.

Nevertheless, films offered a particularly appealing and powerful way for medical authorities to communicate their message about the perils of quackery directly to consumers because they could tell a story that remained difficult to convey in print form. Whether in the form of a training film, newsreel, cartoon, or Hollywood movie, part of the power of moving pictures rested in the capacity to make bodies move across the screen. As Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, and Paula A Treichler note in the introduction to Medicine’s Moving Pictures:

This crucial characteristic of film—observable motion over time—makes movies and television special. To observe and capture movement, manipulate the moving image at various speeds, slow it down and freeze it, and make it appear that a ‘real’ event is happening ‘now’; these are the qualities that fascinated the pioneers of photography, film, and television as they learned to see and represent objects and bodies moving through time and space (3).

In the unparalleled “History of Motion Pictures in Medicine,” a manuscript completed by Adolf Nichtenhauser around 1950, but never published, this potential for film to present science and medicine dramatically and realistically, while also blurring fact and fiction, is a constant theme. While early filmmakers made an effort to sharpen the distinction between entertainment and education, Nichtenhauser suggests the divide between the two was never as clear as industry guidelines and textbooks claim (8).

Many of the medical films featuring the subject of quackery embraced both entertainment and educational techniques simultaneously. On the one hand, medical filmmakers most often employed melodrama (a primary mode of American movies and television, notes film scholar Linda Williams) for telling stories of danger, disease, and death (42-43). In Medicine’s Moving Pictures, this power to “move” viewers through the depiction of emotions onscreen—the ability to elicit tears, laughter, sympathy, and fear—is highlighted in films examining a wide range of medical subjects (4). In the case of quackery in moving pictures, films also offered the power to dramatize and humanize the charlatan, who was often caricatured in posters, magazines, and cartoons, by showing people what quacks looked like, how they behaved and interacted with people, and the techniques they used to dupe unsuspecting consumers. Unfortunately, the depiction of quacks in moving pictures also reinforced a caricature that suggested the quack could be easily identified, when sometimes he or she could not. On the other hand, these same films often paired melodrama with educational messages designed to “move” audiences to adopt new behaviors as well. As public education had been a primary objective of anti-quack organizations dating back to the nineteenth century, in some ways the use of films represented a continuation of a decades-long struggle. By allowing anti-quackery crusaders to dramatize the quack menace in real-life terms, films also provided distinctly new and powerful tools and techniques.

The Cancer Quack

One of the first public education films about cancer in the United States also offered one of the first portrayals of the quack in film. As David Cantor has shown, the American Society for the Control of Cancer hoped that its first public-education movie, funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, and produced by the Eastern Film Corporation, would open up a new era in cancer detection, treatment and prevention (“Uncertain Enthusiasm,” 42). “The early enthusiasm for movies as a public-education tool came at an opportune time for the ASCC,” Cantor notes (40). Initial educational efforts focused on newspapers, magazines, lantern slides, and talks by physicians, “but the Society was also keen to find new ways of getting its message across” (40). In 1921, the ASCC launched its first cancer week—an intense effort at fundraising and education—and it was here that the ASCC’s first movie appeared as the centerpiece.

Reward of Courage, a silent-film melodrama, set in the town of Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, uses a love story, and complications of workplace relationships and familial ties, to convey the primary messages of ASCC print publication campaigns of the day—the importance of early detection and treatment by a qualified doctor. After the matriarch of the Flint family, Anna, notices a lump in her breast, and is diagnosed with cancer, the family doctor recommends immediate surgery. The sly, cunning character of Morris Maxwell intervenes (literally) from behind the curtain, when he overhears Mrs. Flint receiving her prognosis. Although Maxwell is only vaguely portrayed as a man of leisure at that point in the film, and a possible suitor for the Flint’s daughter Dorothy, he is also clearly the villain. This is made apparent with his ornate clothing, thick makeup, exaggerated gestures, and jittery affect. Maxwell assures Mrs. Flint that an operation is not necessary. As luck would have it, his colleagues at the philanthropic Scientific Cancer Cure Institute have successfully cured thousands of cancer cases with a promising new “Radiumized Paste.” “No knife, no pain, no failure recorded,” the bottle promises. The only thing Mrs. Flint has to do is write a check for $200 and her cure is assured.

In the climactic scene of the film, immediately after Mrs. Flint writes a check to Maxwell, authorities from the Post Office Department rush in and arrest him for falsely advertising a quack remedy. Inspectors assigned to the case had already been diligently tracking Maxwell, after a chemical analysis revealed that his “paste” was worthless. He is hauled off to jail. Meanwhile, Mrs. Flint is granted her own “reward of courage,” in the form of her complete recovery, due to early detection and treatment. The viewer learns very little about the actual treatment Mrs. Flint received and how or why it worked. Her daughter, Dorothy, overcomes doubts about her engagement by learning that her fear of inheriting the disease is misplaced, earning her the reward of a happy marriage. In the final scene of the film, six years later, we find Mr. and Mrs. Flint along with Dorothy, her husband, and small child enjoying an afternoon together.

Reward of Courage offered four distinct messages about quackery that subsequent educational films repeated and elaborated on for the next quarter of a century. First, the film overtly contrasted the character of the quack with that of the professional physician. Maxwell was a well-to-do man of leisure, an outsider who operated at the margins and made extravagant claims. The sober Dr. Clinton offered reasoned, sound guidance based on the tools of science and knowledge gleaned from laboratory and clinical experience. Second, the film made it clear that the quack frequently offered the promise of a cure, often a secret formula, which was either cheaper or less traumatic and invasive than conventional medical therapy, but actually had no value. In this case, chemical analysis proved that Maxwell’s “Radiumized Paste” was worthless. Third, the film showed how the quack preyed on people at a time when they were most vulnerable. Maxwell swooped in from behind the curtain just as Mrs. Flint learned about the seriousness of her illness. Fourth, the most ardent anti-quackery crusaders almost always drove home the message that the only way to be sure that any therapy worked was to rely on the advice of a professional physician. In this case, early diagnosis and treatment were essential for success and survival. These four messages reinforced elaborate print campaigns that had been designed to identify quacks and warn consumers in preceding decades.

Two animated cancer education films from the American Cancer Society, The Traitor Within (1947) and Man Alive (1952), repeated these themes. In Man Alive, Ed Parmlee learns he has cancer and is tempted by the storefront promises of J. Kirkham Headstone, self-billed as “The Edison of Medicine.” Headstone’s sign promises great savings over regular medical treatment for gall bladder disease, nephritis, arthritis, and cancer. His dapper dress, slick hair, and thin mustache are reminiscent of Morris Maxwell. Ed stops on the street and is tempted to try out Headstone, but the narrator implores him to keep walking. “The only one to trust is a recognized physician,” the narrator insists. The quack doctor offers only empty promises and a waste of money. Here, the film features another motif that Cantor has identified as commonplace in cancer films of the 1950s—urging individuals to maintain a healthy fear of cancer to motivate them to seek early detection and treatment, trust only in physicians, and distrust quacks (“Choosing to Live,” 67-68). The Traitor Within elaborates on this theme. The narrator explains to the viewer that no case of cancer has ever been cured by patent medicines, salves, pastes, ointments or other quack remedy; meanwhile, thousands are cured every day with conventional treatment. “At the first symptom,” the narrator instructs, “go to your doctor or hospital where a highly trained team of professionals will help.”

The appeal of narratives featuring villainous quacks was not lost on Hollywood. Miracle Money (1946), the American Cancer Society’s first dedicated anti-quackery film, features a quack doctor who tries to convince people that his "Volta Ray" cures cancer, much to the chagrin of the professional MD, who is presented as the voice of reason. The film, a rerelease of a prewar Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer dramatic short, also illustrated Hollywood’s ongoing interest in films featuring medical subjects. The new medium of television offered additional opportunities for the ACS to spread its message. In 1956, the CBS General Electric Theatre series, hosted by Ronald Reagan, featured The Charlatan, a melodrama about a quack, played by Oscar-winning actor George Sanders (“Choosing to Live,” 60-61).

Collectively, these films offered a false reassurance that consumers could easily identify the charlatan based on his appearance, demeanor, promises and tactics. These characters were clearly outlandish and cartoonish. Certainly not all quacks had the type of affect and manner that inspired boos and hisses at vaudeville shows. In the cases in which they did, perhaps the depictions of quacks in these films may have made it easier for consumers to identify their real-life counterparts. After all, certain behaviors could be readily identified: if they made exaggerated promises of cures, maintained the secrecy of their wares, and insisted their treatments were less invasive and cheaper than anything a regular doctor could provide, consumers could choose not to patronize these practitioners. If, however, the quack they encountered was more sophisticated or more apt to cloak himself in the trappings of his professional physician counterpart, he might use these caricatures to his advantage.

Men’s Specialists

While medical quackery proved to be a popular subject in cancer films, so-called “men’s specialists” provided even more scandalous material in films about venereal disease. Given the prevalence of practitioners specializing in “men’s diseases” in the first half of the twentieth century, sex educational films tended to focus more intently on moving their audiences to adopt what they considered to be proper health-related practices (Fischer). These films also frequently used scenes in which the films dramatized the conditions of their own reception. In what Robert Eberwein terms “the thematizing of vision and the dramatization of conditions of reception,” films increasingly “narrativize[d] the act of medical, scientific and pedagogic vision” (4). Whereas earlier World War I-era sex education films simply portrayed what could be observed in the clinic, “over time, scenes within the clinic were replaced by scenes in which characters watched a film conveying clinical information” (5). As Simon-Astley Schofield notes in his review of Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire, this “watching-a-film-of-others-watching-a-film approach further legitimized both the medical gaze and the audience’s reception.” The technique also allowed filmmakers to signal the educational intent of a movie for an audience that might otherwise be engrossed in the unfolding melodrama.

The film Know for Sure (1941) perfectly illustrates the tendency to use scandalous behavior as a teaching moment. Know for Sure was made by the Research Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Unites States Public Health Service, and was designed to be shown to male defense workers in airplane factories, ammunition plants, and other civil defense organizations (Parascandola 76). It featured several well-known Hollywood actors, and wove together a series of stories through the interaction of doctors and patients. In one scene, two doctors attend a public screening for a film on preventing venereal disease. On the drive home, Dr. Morton is looking through various pamphlets, one of which reads “Are you being played for a sucker?” Morton asks what it means and Doc responds, “Anybody that believes that a druggist or a quack doctor ever cured a case of syphilis is misguided. And there are hundreds of thousands of them in this country. Why, disreputable druggists and quacks rob the poor suckers of millions every year. Just the other day I heard of a tragic case…” Cut to a scene where we see a crippled man on two canes, struggling into the office of “M.D. Paxton, Specialist in Men’s Diseases.” Paxton, in white smock over rolled up shirt sleeves, slick hair, and thin mustache, informs the patient that he has a new remedy available, the product of years of research. “But doctor, you’ve been prescribing new medicine to me for a long time. I’ve paid you over $2,000,” the patient laments. The doctor says he won’t take another penny if the man questions the results or his integrity as a doctor. The man apologizes and insists he doesn’t mind paying; he only wants to get better. Paxton assures him that “Paxton’s Panacea,” at $5 per bottle will “eliminate every last germ of syphilis” remaining in his body. He prescribes three bottles, each to be taken over a three day period. “At the end of nine days all pain will have vanished and all your troubles will be over,” the doctor promises, as he extends his hand for payment. The next scene cuts to the image of three empty bottles on a nightstand, alongside a calendar with the last of nine days being crossed off. We hear a gun shot off screen, and the crippled man’s hand crashes into the bottles and knocks them over. We learn that the coroner ruled it a suicide, but one of the doctors asserts “that quack with his worthless drugs really murdered the man.”

In another Public Health Service film, Fight Syphilis (1942), the viewer experiences first-hand the temptation offered by alleged quack cures. In a pivotal scene, we encounter a man walking down a darkened alley with a “Men’s Doctor” sign lit up. The narrator asserts that “with the disease come the quacks, the charlatans who thrive wherever people are ignorant, who bring disaster wherever people have failed to fight syphilis, but never cure.” The man, staring up at the night sky, is bombarded with the empty promises of quack ads, flashing before him in a collage of neon signs. “Here, drink this. The cure is guaranteed. $1 a bottle. You can’t go wrong with this stuff. You can’t go wrong. You can’t go wrong.” Overwhelmed and terrified, the man spins around, hands raised protectively to his head. The narrator insists he in fact can go wrong, if he doesn’t seek a legitimate clinic. The message is clear: only scientific knowledge, treatment, and tests can prevent the blindness, insanity, crippling, suffering, and poverty that syphilis can cause.

Studies by the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) had already found that in the 1930s an average of between 40% and 70% of young men in six different US cities were choosing self-treatment or alleged quack therapies over drugs provided by orthodox physicians. But the ASHA studies also challenged the tactics used in portraying so-called men’s specialists in films. Studies showed that the cures they promised were not of the sort that the old-time quack offered, “hawking his medicine from a wagon-tail,” rather the modern specialist now sat “at a desk in his ‘laboratory’ or ‘clinic,” securing patients by advertisement, correspondence, and personal appeal.” “Masquerading as a ‘famous specialist for men,’ ‘specialist in blood diseases,’ ‘the remedy company,’ ‘herbalist,’ ‘professor,’ or ‘electric institute,’ he reaps a full harvest from victims who are misled by his advertising matter,” an ASHA pamphlet reported (4-5).

Nevertheless, these films and others, including Plain Facts (1941) and Health is a Victory (1942) from the American Social Hygiene Association, repeated many of the themes developed in educational films about cancer. Each asserted that everyone should beware of quacks and self-treatment because they did not cure. These films also effectively dramatized the consequences of using quack remedies.The immediate consequences of unsafe medicines could be death and debility. The long-term consequences could be the advancement of diseases that may have otherwise been effectively treated with the tools of modern medicine. Universally, films portrayed the quack as a manipulative charlatan, intent on bilking unsuspecting victims of their money, while robbing them of their health. The persona of the quack may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but portrayals suggested to viewers that professional physicians were distinctly different, in manner, in dress, and in the promises they made. Narrators insisted that only a regular, licensed physician could be relied upon to treat disease successfully. They also addressed the desperation felt by sufferers, and the temptation to believe the empty promises of charlatans.

Quacks Investigated

The seedy character of the quack also provided the ideal foil in news reports of fraud and manipulation. Mid-century investigative reports harkened the type of “propaganda” defined by health filmmakers in the early twentieth century as “mental inoculation” or “will-control”—not deception or distortion but using information to influence public opinion and behavior. As Pernick argues, “In their minds, what distinguished propaganda from information was not the content but the intent—the desire to control the audience’s response” (5). In the late 1950s, a new wave of muckraking journalists zeroed in on what many considered a scandalous revival of quackery. In a typical expose from 1957, a series of articles in the New York Post reported the nation’s annual nostrum bill had topped a billion dollars. According to author James Cook, this included not just extreme examples like Harry Hoxsey’s “witch-doctor brew,” but also a wide range of over-the-counter drugs including “cold ‘remedies’ which do not cure colds,” “old-fashioned bromides and anti-histaminics” masquerading as “the new ‘tranquilizer’ drugs,” and an assortment of vitamin and mineral mixtures that claimed to cure a wide range of diseases but actually cured none. In his illuminating book the following year, Remedies and Rackets, Cook asserted America now contained “170,000,000 Guinea Pigs.” He wondered if regulators were bold enough to combat the “quackery, hijinks, and razzle-dazzle” that played consumers for suckers (7).

Television provided a promising new medium for reporting on the alleged quack menace. In an episode of “Confidential Files,” a television series that ran in the mid-1950s, investigative reporter and host Paul Coates equated the quack doctor with the murderer. Coates begins an episode on quacks by informing the viewer that thousands of medical charlatans continued to prey on innocent victims who sought “the royal road” to health. “No one man or agency can put them out of business,” he insisted. Quacks, after all, had no problem finding victims, in people motivated by self-preservation. Part of the episode featured the peddler of a cancer salve, who claimed to cure the most serious cases that regular doctors had deemed hopeless. Another segment exposed fraudulent medical devices, illustrated most vividly in the case of an electronic apparatus that allegedly diagnosed diseases and calculated the appropriate corresponding treatment, but turned out to simply be a modified suitcase phonograph.

The quack in “Confidential Files,” was not the easily identified villain of films past, however. The quack is described as “an itinerant Hippocrates,” with “no medical school training to speak of,” but “a bedside manner to match the best of Johns Hopkins Medical School graduates.” In reenactments, he uses the trappings of science, including elaborate charts used in diagnosis, and often he is dressed in the conventional white coat of the regular medical doctor. The program ends with an interview with an FDA inspector from California who explains the challenges involved with investigating and prosecuting suspected quacks. Not only are resources limited, he explains, but victims are reluctant to testify in cases where they have been wronged. Meanwhile, those who are brought to court often escape with a minor fine and no jail time.

The television program Quacks and Nostrums (1959) addressed the appeal of a particular type of quack, the health “lecturer,” whose sincerity and apparent honesty proved irresistible to many unsuspecting consumers of the day, even if he overtly provided an alternative to the mainstream medical professional. The film begins with a teenager, Larry, and a classmate, doing homework for their high school health class. When Mrs. Lewis arrives at home, she tells Larry about the amazing health lecture she just attended, where a genius South Sea “doctor” named Aluka Khahuma informed attendees about his remarkable cure-all tea. We never meet the doctor, but his exotic name appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of the writers. Larry suggests Khahuma sounds like a quack, but Mrs. Lewis insists she saw letters testifying to the effectiveness of the tea, from hundreds of successful cases.

Unconvinced, Larry decides to take the tea to the family doctor to see what he thinks. Dr. Evans warns Larry that quacks like Khahuma are particularly dangerous because they encourage the patient to delay or defer treatment by medical doctors. Larry decides the subject of quacks and their nostrums would make the perfect subject for his upcoming report in his health class. So, on the advice of Dr. Evans, the scenes that follow take Larry to the offices of various officials engaged in the battle against quackery.

While Quacks and Nostrums can be easily critiqued for its pedantic tone, it dramatizes many of the central messages offered by quackbusters in other media in the 1950s. At his visit to the FDA District Laboratory, Larry learns that the tea, while not dangerous, has no ingredients with proven therapeutic value. He learns about the shady techniques used to acquire testimonials. The FDA official describes the investigative process and explains the important role consumers play in alerting officials about questionable remedies and devices. At a return visit to Dr. Evans, the doctor shows Larry some of the anti-quack educational pamphlets produced by the Better Business Bureau. He tells Larry that the AMA’s Bureau of Investigation offers the most complete collection on quackery available, and that it acts as a clearinghouse of information for curious consumers. A visit to the Federal Trade Commission outlines the techniques used by advertisers and what can be done to stop them. The film culminates, a few days later, when Larry arrives home to find his mother sick in bed. Larry calls Dr. Evans, who subsequently determines that Mrs. Lewis will need treatment, in the hospital, for a gall bladder problem. In the final scene, Mrs. Lewis is pictured at home, convalescing. Larry brings her the newspaper, which features an article on the indictment of the lecturer who had sold her the tea.

Other films, like Fraud Fighters, also highlighted the efforts of quackbusters themselves. An RKO presentation from 1949, Fraud Fighters dramatized the human loss involved with quackery while underscoring the yeoman’s work of the FDA. The film begins with an ominous scene at a cemetery. “Buried here,” the narrator informs us, “is a man who died before his time, his grave a monument to ignorance and fraud.”   John Martin had died, or had been murdered, the viewer is told, “as surely as if the deed had been done by bullet or knife,” after choosing to forego his insulin treatments in favor of a mail order cure-all known as Elixerex. The newspaper advertisement that had promised Martin and others quick relief for diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, and gastrointestinal diseases sold for only $2.00 a pint.

In the next scene, FDA investigator Kennedy comes across the same advertisement in his bureau office. Given the aim of the FDA, to “guarantee as best it can that medicines contain what they say and do what they say they will do,” Kennedy goes to the source. Upon visiting the residential address registered with the Elixerex concern, he learns that the manufacturer is operating out of a backyard shed. The viewer never sees the manufacturer himself, but the fact that he lives on an ordinary residential street, and works out of his home, is a warning that one can never tell the source of a nostrum advertised in the pages of the local paper. Kennedy takes a sample of Elixerex off the shelf of the shed. He then tracks down shipping orders that tie the manufacturer to the victim. He obtains a death certificate and sends the sample of Elixerex to FDA chemists, where it is confirmed to be “a mixture of water and an herbaceous alcohol derived from weeds in the backyard of the maker.” The evidence is weighed by medical officers in Washington. A consensus is reached. The manufacturer is sentenced to one year in jail and given a stiff fine. Case closed.

The story effectively conveyed a two-part message, which the narrator repeats for good measure: 1) quacks “prey on ignorant, unsuspecting people who can’t afford or who spurn a doctor’s advice,” people who are “easy marks for extravagant claims or weird devices that have as much effect as a spell cast by a witch doctor”; and 2) the FDA should be praised for its work and considered “a symbol of a nation’s concern for its consumers, an assurance that all its ramparts of safety are ably defended.” The FDA’s effort, a “battle against deceit and fraud, and sometimes nature,” offered “vigilance at its attentive best, safeguarding the health and welfare of the nation.”

In addition to outlining the work of professional quackbusters, other 1950s television programs could be used to more directly educate viewers on how to spot a quack, in the same way that films had done with cancer doctors and men’s specialists in decades past. This was the primary goal of the television program “Gullible in Gadget Land: A Story of Medical Quackery” (1957). The broadcast featured dramatized vignettes of the misadventures of the patient Gus Gullible to various quack doctors, interspersed with an interview between science writer Robert Perkin and Director of the American Medical Association’s Bureau of Investigation Oliver Field. In the first segment, we encounter a patient lying on a table, hooked up to a buzzing, flashing machine with electrodes. The doctor, dressed in an ornate robe and turban, says, in a heavy accent, “Hey there Mr. Gullible, there’s another treatment all finished, and I bet you feel a million times better don’t you?” Gus fails to respond, passes out, and the doctor calls for his wife in the other room. “Maybe this guy really is sick,” he suggests, under his breath. The dramatization complete, the camera returns to Perkin and Field in studio. Perkin notes that the quackery business appears to be thriving, and begins by asking Field whether people really are as gullible as they seem. Field asserts that, “a good many of us are, won’t accept medical facts, or think there are shortcuts to health.” His hope is to make the viewer “more skeptical.” His threefold message echoes the themes of Reward of Courage from nearly three decades before: 1) there isn’t an effective therapy or any medical advance that has been attributed to a quack; 2) desperation encourages the sick to seek shortcuts and encourages unjustified belief in the effectiveness of quack remedies; and 3) those who enjoy poor health or can’t be helped are most susceptible. Field also emphasizes that the AMA’s function is not to prosecute offenders; the only thing they can do is expose the charlatan.

In asking “how we gullible Guses can protect ourselves,” the closing scene outlines the characteristics of the quack more directly and specifically than any other moving picture presentation before it. Six quack patterns are identified. The viewer is told, beware if: 1) he claims medical men are persecuting him; 2) he uses a special or “secret” formula or machine; 3) he always tells you that surgery or drugs will cause more harm than good; 4) he uses case histories or testimonials in advertising; 5) he clamors constantly for medical investigation and recognition; and 6) he guarantees a quick cure. The emphasis in this program and others in the 1950s was placed not just on the promises made by alleged quacks, in terms of cures and secret formulas, but also the rhetorical techniques he uses, in terms of playing the role of the martyr, the innovator, or the critic of mainstream medicine (Field 213).


While television programs and films frequently perpetuated exaggerated caricatures of alleged quacks, they nevertheless collectively represented valuable resources in their own right in the fight against quackery. As educational tools, they informed consumers about the nature of the perceived problem and outlined the ways in which private and public organizations sought to protect people from unsafe or unproven medical therapies. Filmmakers also modeled the behaviors they wanted viewers to adopt. They all presented quackery as a predatory practice. They all portrayed patients as victims, even if they encouraged viewers to take responsibility for their actions, to avoid being a Gullible Gus. Fraud fighters were also widely praised and celebrated for their work, especially in later portrayals. They promoted the tools of modern science and medicine as essential components in the fight against quackery. But while these films educated and informed, they also offered melodramatic interpretations of quackery and its continued appeal. They explained how a desperate sufferer of a serious disease might be easily swayed. They illustrated how the quack might convince the suspect consumer. Collectively, these films illustrated how quackery could be circumscribed, but would likely never be eliminated.

While the depictions of quackery in medical films might be critiqued for being heavy-handed and pedantic, their persistent appeal offers some evidence of their success, just as a close viewing also offers some insight into why people continued to patronize quacks throughout the period discussed above. There were certainly cases in which people made poor choices due to a lack of knowledge or understanding. Desperation could be the impetus for seeking help outside the doctor’s office. Gullibility might also be to blame. Others patronized practitioners along the margins because they firmly believed in what they sold or offered. Anecdotal evidence could be powerful and convincing. Questionable medicines were marketed to consumers over time by appealing to vanity, instilling fear, creating hope, and promoting the freedom of victims of disease. Simultaneously, alleged quacks ingeniously used advertising outlets and media channels to promote their wares while cleverly handling the opposition by deliberately avoiding language or behaviors identified as tell-tale signs of quackery.

In the fall of 1961, the meeting of First National Congress on Medical Quackery, held in Washington D.C., provided an opportunity to evaluate the broader crusade against quackery that films and television had become a part of. Conference Proceedings did not explicitly address past failures but instead referred to the meeting as part of a united effort to launch a “vigorous, multi-faceted attack on medical quackery” (1). The goal was to attract attention to the gravity of the problem and attempt for the first time a coordinated campaign against alleged quacks. Delegates listened to a day and half of speeches made by representatives from the most prominent organizations opposed to medical quackery. Director of the American Medical Association’s Legal and Socio-Economic Division, C. Joseph Stetler, began the meeting by restating the hope the organizers shared—that the congress would “be the beginning of a hard-hitting and revitalized crusade by private and governmental agencies against the hucksters of pseudo-medicine” (3).

AMA President Leonard W. Larson insisted that contrary to stereotypes, the types highlighted in moving pictures in the preceding decades, quackery in the 1960s remained modern, commercial, cosmopolitan, and “almost respectable” for some. Larson believed the congress faced a difficult challenge in stripping off this “mask of respectability … to show the public the vicious, scheming villainy beneath.” By operating “just within the bounds of the law—but well outside the realm of human decency and honesty,” Stetler explained, quacks had made “slippery targets for law enforcement agencies.” FDA Secretary Abraham Ribicoff echoed these sentiments. He noted how quackery had become more sophisticated. He lamented that “despite our system of education (not as good as we want it to be, but more universal than any other), despite our high standards of living, despite, even, the basic laws in this field and the Government agency that enforces them, today quackery is flourishing” (1-6). This coda suggested the efforts to humanize and dramatize the quack in films and television programs, and the broader fight against medical quackery, had largely failed to accomplish its goals.

In the Proceedings of the fourth, and final, Congress on Health Quackery, held in 1968, James Harvey Young offered an historian’s perspective on the work that had been done since the first congress seven years earlier (5-6). Young noted that given the long history of quackery, it was unlikely that the battle would ever be won decisively. In fact, he observed that there had been periods when “new laws, scientific advances, and too optimistic a view of man’s inherent reason and goodness” had made people drop their guard, and quackery had surged forward with new vigor. By and large, members of the antiquackery network, who had produced dozens of films and television programs intended to entertain and educate the masses, failed to see any contradiction in their combined belief in the gullibility, ignorance, or delusion of the consuming public and their faith in the power of education to enlighten people.

In order to comprehend the appeal of alleged quacks, Young advises that we need to understand both parties involved in the transaction: the practitioner or seller of medicines and the consumer who buys them (95). After all, alleged quackery in nearly all its forms shares a common characteristic. Whether overtly or indirectly, the seller appeals to the values, beliefs, and philosophical orientations of the buyer. Young acknowledges this appeal in offering an explanation for the proliferation of quackery, but he more often attributes the persistence of quackery to a shared delusion. The history of quackery in medical films suggests that a more genuine seduction is involved.

Works Cited

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Boyle, Eric W. Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-Century America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013. Print.

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Confidential Files: Medical Quacks. Dir. Ben Pevar. Guide Films. Circa 1956. Television.

Cook, James. “The Nation’s Nostrum Bill.” New York Post (May 20, 1957). Print.

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Eberwein, Robert. Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Print.

Field, Oliver. “The American Medical Association Fight Against Quackery in Medicine.” FDC Law Journal 8 (April 1953): 213-20. Print.

Fight Syphilis. Dir. Owen Murphy. United States Public Health Service. 1942. Film.

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Fraud Fighters. Dir. Larry O-Reilly. RKO Pathe Inc. 1949. Film.

Gieryn, Thomas. “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists.” American Sociological Review, 48 (Dec. 1983): 781-95. Print.

Gullible in Gadget Land. Dir. Jerre Wyatt. WKLZ-TV, Denver. 1957. Television.

Health is a Victory. Script by Walter Clarke. American Social Hygiene Association. 1942. Film.

Know For Sure. Dir. Lewis Milestone. United States Public Health Service. 1941. Film.

Man Alive. Dir. William T. Hurtz. American Cancer Society. 1952. Film.

Miracle Money. Dir. Leslie Fenton. American Cancer Society. 1946. Film.

Nichtenhauser, Adolf. “A History of Motion Pictures in Medicine,” unpublished manuscript, 1950, in the Adolf Nichtenhauser History of Motion Pictures in Medicine Collection, MSC 380, Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD. Print.

Parascandola, John. “Syphilis in the Cinema: Medicine and Morals in VD Films in the U.S. Public Health Service in World War II.” In Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007: 71-92. Print.

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Scholfield, Simon-Astley. "Pornotopian Studies: Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire." M/C Reviews (19 July 2000). Accessed October 2014. Online.

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Suggested Citation

Boyle, Eric W. “Quackery in American Moving Pictures, 1921-1959.” Trespassing Journal: an online journal of trespassing art, science, and philosophy 4 (Fall 2014). Web. ISSN: 2147-2734

Eric W. Boyle earned his Ph.D. in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2007.  From 2007 to 2008, he worked as Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s History of Medicine program. He finished a postdoctoral fellowship with the Office of History at the National Institutes of Health in 2011 where he conducted research on his current book project, In the Belly of the Beast: A History of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. He is currently Chief Archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and Lecturer at the University of Maryland. His first book, Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-Century America, was published in 2013.