Quacks, or pretenders to medical knowledge, have been
practicing their deceptions for centuries. In the 1500s, for example,
quack physicians prescribed “philosopher’s egg,” an egg pricked and
blown out, then refilled with saffron, as a cure for the bubonic plague.
Early American history is full of stories of traveling medicine
salesmen who advertised nostrums, concoctions and ointments
“guaranteed” to cure every physical complaint.
Quackery follows us into the digital age with spam-offered cures
for obesity, wrinkles and undersized body parts.
How did the dispensers of useless ointments and treatments
come to be called quacks, and their pseudo-science quackery?
These words derive from the 16 th century Dutch term
kwakzalver, which referred to a medical charlatan. This word, in
turn, is a combination of the verb kwakken, to make the noise of a
duck, and zalf, meaning ointment or salve.
The kwakzalver, or quacksalver, was literally one who “quacked”
or boasted about his “salves.” This term is an apt verbal portrait of
the American snake oil merchant that hawked his cures with
evangelical zeal, then moved on to the next town before his imposture
The derived abbreviation quack is still used to refer to
unqualified medical practitioners, while quackery describes their