23 June 2019


S. D. Tucker. Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History. Amberley, 2018.

‘Purity’ has been the theme of a few books I have reviewed lately, basing my views on Peter Rogerson’s comments in his last Magonia piece: “… surely all the worst crimes are committed in the name of purity and pure lands: pure religion, pure nation, pure race, new model pure people, a pure world cleared of ‘human pollutant’, pure souls freed from organic bodies, pure lands that no actual-existing human being is ever pure enough to inhabit.”
This book is about the quest for ‘pure people’, and proceeds along a road set out by the deluded, the deranged and the dangerous.

It’s clear that a great deal of what is put forward as a recipe for healthy living, both historically and more recently, is not so much dealing with the body’s physical health, but is much more a way of promoting an ideal of moral health. In almost every new public health pronouncement, from unrealistic drinking ‘guidelines’ and bans on advertising almost any kind of foodstuffs other than turnips; to snobbish disdain for the eating habits of the working class, we see the demands for absolute purity that are described in this book.

Tucker traces this moralising back to the Bible, with it’s strict dietary rules, and the Greek philosopher Epicurius. Despite his name being taken as a description of someone who “takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink” - according to the first online dictionary I accessed - Epicurius’s own diet was far from ‘fine dining’, consisting largely of bread and water, a menu more associated with punishment rather that pleasure. He preached that this was because a healthy lifestyle required ‘balance’ - a word much used by dietary quacks – but may have been more down to necessity, He suffered from severe stomach and bladder problems so a mean which we would consider ‘epicurean’ would probably have finished him off before he got to the after-dinner mints.

In the nineteenth-century, Lord Byron, despite being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ as a result of his sexual appetites, was puritanical about what he would eat, limiting himself largely to ‘hard biscuits’ and ‘bruised potatoes drenched with vinegar’. In fact he seemed to be quite a fan of vinegar based diets, combining them with magnesia and Epsom salts to fend off hunger pangs and apparently setting off a trend for ascetic young poets to follow a similar diet in order to get their creative, if not there digestive, juices flowing.

That much dietary moralising has a religious foundation is demonstrated by the case of Edmund Szekely, who claimed in 1927 to have found a hitherto unknown Gospel in an obscure and secret part of the Vatican Library, as is so often the case. Originally publishing it as the Gospel of Peace of Jesus Christ by the Disciple John, he later re-branded it as the Essene Gospel of Peace, presumably to cash in on the then-recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This was basically Jesus Christ’s Diet Book. Unsurprisingly, as Szekely was a vegetarian, his wife was a vegetarian and his mother-in-law was a former vice-president of the New York Vegetarian Society, it turned out that Christ was a vegetarian as well. Quite a coincidence. He wasn’t actually a vegan, as He approved of the consumption of milk, but felt that it should be breathed in, rather than drunk, sucking in its vapour as it evaporates in the sunlight.

Christ also seems to have been very fixated on our bowels, and in the Essene Gospel gives very detailed instructions on how to perform a colonic irrigation, using only equipment that could be sourced in first-century Palestine.

Whilst Christ’s claimed interest in our bowel-movements must remain – at the very most – apocryphal, we can be more certain that they have fascinated generations of dietary quacks in more recent eras. And none more so than Horace Fletcher, an American whose great aim in life was to allow us all to produce lovely clean, nice-smelling turds. He claimed to have achieved this goal personally, and was more than happy to allow you to inspect some that he had prepared earlier, and just happened to have with him, which he compared to ‘dandruff’and supposedly smelled of Rich Tea biscuits. To emphasise the purity which his method produced, he always wore a white suit.

The secret of this amazing trick was to chew your food properly. Now as kids we have all be warned not to ‘bolt your food’ otherwise all sorts of unlikely digestive havoc might ensue, but Fletcher’s method might seem a little extreme, as all food had to be chewed until it became totally liquid in the mouth before ingesting. And he meant ALL food, as even soup and milk should receive a full dental massage before swallowing. Declaration of interest: I have just tried to chew a cup of tea, and failed.

However, others seem to have succeeded, and ‘Fletcherism’, as this fad inevitable became known, swept fashionable society in the Edwardian period, possibly even attracting King Edward himself. Perhaps one of the attractions of Fletcherism was that no food or drink was specifically banned so long as you chewed it long enough, so champagne, foie gras, deep-fried Mars Bars, all were OK so long as you chewed them almost into non-existence.

One person who was convinced by Fletcher’s chew-chew policy was a certain John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the eponymous breakfast cereal. Kellogg’s stimulus for inventing the cornflake was his campaign against the evils of masturbation or as he described it in his seminal (sorry) work ‘The Solitary Vice’: “self-pollution, self-abuse, masturbation, onanism, manustupration [1] [a new one on me], voluntary pollution and solitary or secret vice”. In fact, he seemed to be against sex of any kind, even if more than one person was involved and they were married.

The urge for all this naughtiness was caused by the effects of meat throbbing through the digestive systems, so a vegetarian diet would reduce the excessive energies, and a bowl of plain cornflakes would purify the body, soul and morals of the healthy breakfaster. Kellogg set up a clinic, the Western Reform Health Institute, which delivered a weird combination of Seventh Day Adventist theology, a strict vegetarian diet and a regime of yoghurt enemas. Fletcher and Kellogg formed a mutual admiration society, each promoting the others’ works, until they split citing artistic differences about how many times one needed to take a dump in a week.

Not all of the quacks described in this book had quite the same anal obsessions as Kellogg and his ilk, and we are presented with one name that will be very familiar to Magonia readers: Howard Menger, the UFO contactee.

I am sorry to reveal that in nearly half a century of UFO-bothering I have never got round to reading Menger’s account of his contact with the Space Brothers and his lovely Venusian wife, but I have missed a treat. A large proportion of the tome is apparently taken up with a description of the aliens' agricultural and dietary regime, which at this stage I need hardly have to tell you consists of strict vegetarianism, even veganism, and they do not drink cows’ milk, or presumably eat cheese. Instead they have super-potatoes grown on the moon in jelly. They gave one such spud to Menger who took it to various laboratories for analysis, with no real result, until it was – almost inevitably – confiscated by the US Government, declaring that it was ‘classified information’.

Tucker suggests that Menger’s medical views were influenced by a cranky, though perhaps not deliberately fraudulent, Doctor George Earp-Thomas, whom Menger had consulted seeking treatment for his son’s cancer. The aliens’ healthy diet bore a strong resemblance to that proposed by Earp-Thomas, but did nothing for Menger’s son, who died tragically young. Earp-Thomas was actually a real scientist, who when he was not promoting ineffectual anti-cancer diets, did produce some genuine work on soil-science.

Not all the quacks Tucker describes are as harmlessly amusing as Jesus’s cookery book and the poo-doctors, and the chapter about Menger goes on to describe the horrific scams perpetrated on cancer sufferers by criminal fraudsters selling expensive but useless ‘cures’ for cancer. These were not really brought under control until legislated against in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Equally disturbing were the sometimes genuinely intended, but equally destructive proponents of ‘healthy’ radium treatment in the 1910s, ‘20’s and even much later. The products being sold included a terrifying sounding radium jock-strap. The gloss began to wear off the radium cures after a headline in the Wall Street Journal, quoted by Tucker: “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Fell Off’ recounting the fate of Eben McBurney Byers, a millionaire industrialist and golf champion, who died in 1932 after consuming 1400 bottles of ‘Radithor’, a radium infused mineral water, sold as a sexual stimulant, amongst other claims.

Besides the search for Purity – pure bodies, pure souls, pure poo – another feature of the quack remedies is a determination to prove conventional medicine to be a fraud and a conspiracy. It should be replaced by diagnostic techniques like iridology, which purports to be able to determine the health of the whole body through an examination of the eye, or zonotherapy which seemed to suggest that most pain could be eliminated by putting clothes pegs on the ends of your fingers, and thus rendering anaesthesia unnecessary.

Those of a certain age (i.e. about mine) may remember the splendidly named Gayelord Hauser, author of books such as Look Younger, Live Longer, and Eat and Grow Beautiful. These titles promoted the near-magical qualities of blackstrap molasses, which Tucker describes as “the gunky black dregs which remain after sugar refining”. Hauser had his own run-ins with the US Food and drugs Administration, but maintained the support of many celebrities, including the Hollywood legend Greta Garbo. I suppose it’s possible that her noted reluctance to talk might have been due to her jaws being glued together with blackstrap molasses.

As well as his dietary advice, Hauser promoted the ideas of the well-intentioned, but totally barmy and ultimately probably dangerous treatments which were advocated by a doctor W. H. Bates, a qualified optician, who after disappearing for years and having some sort of mental breakdown rejected conventional optical ideas and decided that spectacles were bad for you, and that visual handicaps like short- and long-sightedness, and even blindness, could be cured by a system of eye-exercises. One of these involved holding your hands over your eyes and imagining a yellow butterfly.

Gaylord speedily latched on to this and published a rip off of Bates’s book Better Eyesight Without Glasses, rather unimaginatively entitled Keener Vision Without Glasses, but adding a few of his dietary nostrums to Bates’s exercises. Doing a quick check, I’m amazed to see that both Bates’s and Hauser’s books are still in print, in brand new editions.

Actually, no, I’m not amazed at all.

This book is a fascinating compendium of the cranky and the criminal, the mad and the misguided. While the rest of us struggle through with conventional, ‘allopathic’ medicine, which, like the Roman Empire, has done nothing for us – except increased the human lifespan by decades, virtually eliminated many deadly plagues, found cures for diseases which wiped out whole populations, and reduced infant mortality in much of the world to virtually zero – the enlightened ones can experience such miraculous treatments as yoghurt enemas, bathing their eyes with lime juice, living entirely on air, or alternatively adopting former Breatharian Wiley Brooke’s miracle diet of a McDonald double quarter-pounder with cheese and Diet Coke, although you could have two single quarter-pounders instead if that was all that was available.

I’ll leave you to read about the healthy, protein-rich sperm diet for yourself (it’s on page 56). – John Rimmer

[1] manustupration: An older term for masturbation, from the Latin manus (hand) and stupro (debauch).

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