The Strange Tale Of 19th-Century Quack Doctors

BeechamsPillsDuring the 19th century, quack “doctors” outnumbered legit ones three to one. A growing interest in science and a booming open market proved irresistible to businesspeople who rushed to bring products with dubious medical claims to health-starved consumers. These were the people who treated (and mistreated) our ancestors’ medical woes. Among these were Wallace and Willis Reinhardt, twin brothers who helmed a kind of fraudulent dynasty in the Midwest.

After being run out of Minnesota for fear of a grand jury investigation of their faux medical institute, the brothers set up shop in Milwaukee. Under the guise of the “Wisconsin Medical Institute,” they took advantage of ailing patients, diagnosing “sexual ailments” and pushing pricey treatments on their victims. Those who were unable to travel to their office could experience the Reinhardt’s “cures” from afar thanks to mail-order books, devices and medicines.

Their brazen actions caused a crackdown on ads for patent medicines, and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act further decimated the patent medicine and quack industry across the country.

You can read all about the Reinhardt twin brothers in Giving Them What They Want by Erika Janik and Matthew B. Jensen. The article was published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History by the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2011. The article is now available online and free of charge at


I noticed a listing on an old census of “quack doctor” as an occupation. (not my ancestor, but on the same page.) I wondered if it was an editorial comment on the part of the enumerator or if it was a “legit” term for a person who became a doctor by apprenticeship rather than by a medical degree. I believe this was a route to becoming a doctor at one time as it was to becoming a lawyer.


Is it wise to illustrate your article with the advertisement for Beecham’s Pills? They were hardly a quack remedy, they were a very popular over the counter pill and I vaguely remember being dosed with them in the 1950’s. Beechams eventually became part of GlaxoSmithKline


    Beecham’s Pills originally had many questionable claims when they were advertised as a cure-all, but later became a bit more respectable when the advertising became more conservative and the pills were then advertised only as a laxative. Indeed, the pills did work well as a laxative but not as a “one product cures everything” medicine with all the cures originally advertised.

    See the early advertisement below:

    Advertisement in Los Angeles Herald, July 20, 1893


The evolution of medical science from quackery to effectiveness continues even to this day. A very recent longitudinal study revealed that only a scandalously small percentage of medical study findings were reproducible (Economist). Medicine, chemistry, health and nutrition have been entangled for centuries. The word “recipe” in the 19th century had a wide range of meanings. The Contra Costa County Historical Society in California has a collection of over 70 “Recipe” books and booklets. The earliest is “The American Receipt [Recipe] Book – or Complete Book of Reference Containing Valuable and Important Receipts—And Agriculture”, A. S. Wright, Philadelphia, Lindsay and Blakistan, 1844, 359 pages. Throughout the early 20th century famous names like Lydia Pinkham, Pillsbury, Martha Meade, Proctor and Gamble and Lever brothers touted the healthful benefits of their products by producing recipe books. Less well known hucksters like Rumford Chemical Works, Chattanooga Medicine Company and Vegetrates, Inc also prospered in the health field for awhile.


These quackery doctors were very common place. Genealogists don’t realize the problems this can cause. My Great Great Grandfather was one of these and practiced in the Buffalo New York area during the 1890’s. When things got too hot for him to handle and he feared prosecution, he changed his name to William Smith (not legally) and practiced for a couple years under that alias. I have many problems tracing the family. Some retained their birth names and some are Smiths. Grrrrr.


I am an executive producer of the documentary NUTS!, now playing in select locations after won the editing award at Sundance. It’s the tale of Dr. John R. Brinkley, a quack of monumental proportions. He built a radio empire in Depression-era America with a goat testicle impotence cure and a million watt radio station.


A recommendation for further light reading: “The Quack’s Daughter” by Greta Nettleton. The book is based on the diary of an ancestor, recounting her college life and the years before and after as the daughter of a female quack doctor in the Midwest. Some of her mother’s practices seem quite appropriate and useful.


The real goldmine you’ve uncovered here is free, if limited, access to JSTOR. Could you possibly give more details regarding this treasure?


I have a gg uncle 1811-1998 who, it was said, practiced “eclectic” medicine for a long period of time in Indiana and Illinois. I’ve always wondered what “eclectic” meant. There is no indication that there were any issues with anyone. He was “settled” and owned land in both Indiana and Illinois for a long period of time.


Bruce Butterfield July 16, 2016 at 2:25 pm

Your g-g-uncle would have chose from several methods and sources for the best solution for a particular patient’s ills.
He must have been a great doctor,who self-treated himself, to live to the marvelous age of 187 years old.
We should all be so lucky-maybe!


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