Quackery: A Book That Will Leave You Writhing

Quackery book cover
Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

I bought Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything on a whim. It was on sale, and I loves me some sneering at snake oil. I figured it would be enjoyable.

Friends. It far surpassed expectations. Lydia and Nate’s style is easy, breezy, and delightfully snarky. They give a wonderful amount of detail: not enough to get bogged down, plenty to really relish the quackery. They do their best to explain why rational people fall for irrational nonsense, and while the medical shysters preying on vulnerable people get no quarter from them, the victims get empathy. It’s so great!

This is a really hard read in places because some of the stuff is super squicky, and they don’t spare the gross details. Still, I was doing great through the Elements (like Mercury, Arsenic, and Radium) and Plants & Soil (did you know people used to rub or eat really expensive clay lozenges? A very earthy cure!). But then we hit Tools, and that chapter nearly broke me. I’ll merrily eat dinner while watching graphic surgery shows, but the details on lobotomies, bloodletting, and especially early surgery had me turning every shade of green. Ew. But I survived, and thoroughly enjoyed Animals (even though it includes corpse medicine… eeewww), and my stomach was all back to normal when we ended with Mysterious Powers. YMMV.

I’ve long been an aficionado of quack cures, but there was stuff in there I’d never encountered. Radionics? Rectal dilators? Oh, my! And for those “cures” I was already familiar with, there was a wealth of detail and insight that often taught me new information. I very much appreciated the depth and breadth of their medical knowledge, their insight into the cultures and attitudes of the time periods, and their ability to explain everything clearly and concisely. They also pointed out when there was a grain of truth in some of these wacky cures, which made for good balance in an unbalanced subject.

It’s astonishing how many of these quack cures deserve to end up in a Women’s Health Hall of Shame. Lydia and Nate include a section with that title, and it’s utterly horrifying. The ideas that overwhelmingly male physicians have had about women’s anatomy are truly ridiculous and sometimes terrifying. The authors show them no mercy. You probably already know that men thought the uterus wandered through the female body, but I had no idea they figured that it could be lured back to its proper place by use of pleasing scents wafted about the vagina! Hyena feet and pig shit were used for labor and delivery. And these were some of the milder ideas. Oy.

I don’t regret finding all this out. My only regret is that this book wasn’t three times longer. I’m sure many quack cures were left on the cutting room floor, so I sincerely hope more volumes will be forthcoming.

If you enjoy wacky medical cons and confusion, and need a book that will engage your brain as much as it entertains, this is your best choice. I can’t say you’ll enjoy every minute, as some of the minutes are downright disgusting, but you love most of them. It’s definitely worth your time!

Quackery: A Book That Will Leave You Writhing
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