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Quackery reigned in old Philadelphia

In the era when Philadelphia was building its reputation as a center of medical learning, it also was a hub of something else: quackery.

In the era when Philadelphia was building its reputation as a center of medical learning, it also was a hub of something else: quackery.

The only things missing were feathers and webbed feet.

The city's newspapers did their part to promote dollar-a-bottle cures, their reports on the potions drawing no distinction between news and advertising.

In 1829, The Inquirer ran a front-page story to announce that Dr. Edwin Atlee endorsed Genuine Remedial Pills, which were guaranteed to remedy melancholy, stomach disorders, and flatulence.

That's a lot of healing for 25 cents a box.

Another front-page story that year heralded Dr. Howell's Cure for Fits, at 50 cents a bottle.

"Advertising for health-related products was done in every way possible, and 150 years ago, that was newspapers," said Stephen Barrett, a retired North Carolina psychiatrist who operates a Web site called Quackwatch.

His Web logo shows a duck in Sherlock Holmes garb. But the use of quack to describe a medical charlatan comes from the Dutch quacksalver - the first part of the word meaning "someone who chatters," the second part meaning "salve."

Cures such as Daffy's Elixir came from England to the territories during the colonial era. In Philadelphia, a man named Francis Torres sold "Chinese stones" to cure snakebite, the stone purported to absorb venom. Benjamin Franklin's mother-in-law promoted her homemade "ointment for the itch" - also effective in killing lice - on handbills printed by her son-in-law.

After the Revolution, American firms took over the production of so-called patent medicines.

Peddlers of fake cures benefited from the rise of newspapers and an increase in literacy. The makers became the first national advertisers, and the most extensive, according to James Harvey Young's The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America.

More people had the ability to read the papers, to discover for themselves "the gory symptoms, the glorious cures," Young wrote.

Outbreaks of typhoid and yellow fever gave people real reason to fear illness. And the therapeutic claims of charlatans could hardly be rebutted by physicians who themselves knew little about disease. A prevailing treatment of the time was blood-letting.

The Inquirer carried ads for the Minerva Pill, a remedy for syphilis. Albright's Colombian Syrup cured rheumatism and liver complaints, while Benders Rheumatic Liniment restored withered limbs and broken bones.

Many faux medicines contained cocaine, opium or alcohol, which explains why people felt better after a dose.

Real science was advancing, too. Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first, celebrated its centennial in 1851. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia became the country's first pediatric hospital four years later.

In 1848, Philadelphia became home to the Homeopathic Medical College of Pennsylvania, which later merged with Hahnemann Medical College. Their alliance eventually produced Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital, named for Samuel Hahnemann.

That German physician, distressed by the harsh treatments employed by his colleagues, sought to cure disease by introducing tiny amounts of substances that would cause illness in large portions.

To some, Hahnemann remains a visionary, the father of homeopathy. To others - well, if it walks like a duck. . . .

By 1905, Americans were spending $75 million on useless medicines. Today, the estimates range into the billions of dollars - and ads for colon health, weight loss, and breast enhancement have moved from newspapers to the Internet and infomercials, promising cures for everything from cancer to depression.

"Believe me," said Quackwatch's Barrett, "there's a product, many products, for every single psychological state and circumstance. ... Quacks never sleep."