Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

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Web of Healing


[18th-century advertisements for Dr. Thomas Anderton and Dr. Sanxay's Medicines]
Advertisements (courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia)

Medical "Quackery"

One cannot study healing in the 18th century without addressing Quackery.  Although now the term is thrown around in jest and as an insult, "Quacks" held a real — albeit contested — place in Philadelphia’s Web of Healing.  This section will provide you with some context and tools to help understand where the terms “Quack” and “Quackery” came from and how this particular aspect of medicine fits into the history of medicine more broadly. It also raises interesting questions about the impact of contemporary medicine on how we understand and think about the past.

The Quack vs. the Doctor

Consider for a moment what your idea and image of a “quack” is.

If you pictured an illegitimate and dishonest fake, you would not necessarily be wrong.  Today, the idea of the quack exists in stark contrast to that of the noble and credentialed arbiter of medical authority, the doctor.  It is important to point out, however, that this conception is based largely on the current view of medicine as a somewhat miraculous success story.  If we consider the fact that our understanding of what a “quack” is and does is based on our contemporary understanding of what a doctor is and does, then it should become clear that there are some extreme roadblocks in the way of our truly understanding quacks as they were seen in the 18th century. 

First of all, we need to gain some historical perspective on what it meant to be a “doctor” in the 18th century and we also need to consider the history of the medical profession a bit more broadly.  Through investigating quackery, this section should make you think critically about the concept of the Web of Healing.  If healing practices really coexisted to the extent that this site claims, then what does it mean that our contemporary understanding of quackery is the polar opposite of a real doctor?  This section should also help you think about some of the possible issues associated with contemporary bias in historical scholarship more generally.