It is hard to imagine a time before modern medicine, but it was more recent than most realize. My siblings and I were born at home in the thirties, and when I was born the sole antibiotic was sulfa powders.

It is hard to imagine a time before modern medicine, but it was more recent than most realize. My siblings and I were born at home in the thirties, and when I was born the sole antibiotic was sulfa powders. I was eleven before modern antibiotics were widely available to the public. When I went to work at Central State Hospital in Norman in June 1954 the first drugs for mental patients—such as Thorazine--were experimental, and we were still treating patients with hydrotherapy, Electro and Insulin shock therapies and hydropathic therapy [wrapping patient in wet-sheet pack soaked in ice water]. [1] Scientific medicine began after the Flexner Report of 1911 which closed over a hundred hokey proprietary medical schools leaving 63 associated with universities. [2] It took years before properly-trained physicians assumed control of medical care.

What did the injured and injured patients do before the modern era? They suffered and endured faux remedies and painful operations without anesthesia that often proved fatal because of lack of sterile technique. The first safe and painless surgery under ether was performed in 1852 in Massachusetts General Hospital. When I was there doing research about 1980 the Director General took me up to this old operating theatre closed to the public for more than a century. For-profit, proprietary medical schools then dominant in medical education did not adopt ether until after the Civil War. Consequently, soldiers had to suffer amputations without anesthesia and, because doctors were ignorant of the germ theory of disease and aseptic technique in surgery, soldiers post-op died of gangrene as often as they survived the knife.

Change came much later to mental health care. Shown here is a letter dated Nov. 19, 1910 from Dr. D.W. Griffin, then Superintendent of the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane in Norman—subsequently named Central State Hospital followed by Griffin Memorial Hospital. It reads, “Dear Sir: I have yours of the 17th inst., and in answer beg to say your wife is no better—no change in anyway [sic]. I doubt if she will ever be any better than she is at this time, although, as to this I could not be absolutely certain. Very respectfully, D.W. Griffin, Superintendent.”

Can you imagine his mental state in being told his wife was chronically mentally ill? He would have been devastated and hopeless. Until early in the twentieth century, that was the condition of persons suffering from most diseases. People with grave physical conditions, chronic pain, and without access to effective remedies and without hope of relief reached out for help from any source. Grasping for hope, such patients became victims of quackery.

Quack Ideas

‘Quackery’ is the promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practice or ideas. When one exits Union Station in Washington, D.C., he is assaulted by persons inviting him to take a ‘test’ using L. Ron Hubbard’s hokey “E-meter” to produce an “engram” presumably providing information designed to entice one to enter the Church of Scientology. Of course, it has no scientific validity. Worse, quack medical practice injures, sometimes kills, and always keeps patients from seeking help from legitimate professional practitioners who can help them. Quackery violates the most basic tenet of medicine e.g., first, do no harm.

There are quack ideas in many disciplines some like economics injuring entire populations. Supply-side economics advocated by American economist Arthur Betz Laffer is a good example of a quack economic theory. By applying this hokey theory recently, Kansas Governor Brownback bankrupted their state’s budget. The “Laffer curve” is well named.

The more consequential faux idea was the “Domino Theory” supporting the War in Vietnam. It held that if North Vietnam prevailed it would trigger a chain reaction in which all Southeastern Asian nations would adopt Chinese communism and control. In fact, the Vietnamese disliked the Chinese and have engaged heavily in free market economics. [The daughter of a friend of ours once was CEO of 50,000 Vietnamese workers making Nike shoes.]


Why do people buy quack goods and services providing economic demand for this nonsense? The concept of “variable threshold of demand” addresses this question. We avail ourselves of all of our own resources without success before we turn to resources beyond our own. First we try chicken soup for a malady that puts us in bed and when that fails, we cross a threshold and go see a doctor. Ceasing to treat our self and exhausting all resources within our network of relatives and friends, and drug store potions we cross the threshold of demand for paid help by professionals. Quack medical care offers hope. If it is an emergency, the threshold is immediate and we do not have opportunity or ability to compare prices of providers—the sine qua non of free market competition. Health care services have the economic characteristics of regulated monopolies such as OG&E and ONG. We have recently witnessed this when drug companies who are sole suppliers of a drug overnight raise their price by staggering percentages.

[1] Hanson, J.W., Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, Chicago: W.B. Conkey Co., 1900, p288.

[2] Flexner, Abraham, Medical Edu. In the U.S., A Report of the Carnegie Foundation, 1910.