Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - November - 2002 Issue

An Adventure in Medical Hyperbole

Sp1no102

By Abby Tallmer

William H. Helfand’s beautiful and captivating show at The Grolier Club makes it clear that ours is not the only generation of Americans to be preyed on, or fall for, the promise of the miracle cure. “Quack, Quack, Quack: The Sellers of Nostrums in Prints, Posters, Ephemera & Books,” is a fascinating whirlwind tour through medical, advertising, and popular culture history in the U.S. (& abroad, which in turn influenced developments here) seen through the prism of printed texts, illustration and ephemera.

One of the joys of the show lies not only in its subject but in its wide range of material, its careful organization and installation and in the witty yet fact-filled caption labels written by Mr. Helfand, a retired pharmaceutical executive, Grolier Club member and major collector of material about medical cures and medical fakeries (Mr. Helfand harbored a guess that he owns several hundred to thousands more pieces of material on this subject which regrettably could not fit into this exhibit.) Mr. Helfand is also the author of the 250+ page catalogue of the show (same title as the exhibit, containing reprints of all items in the show, all caption labels, and some supplementary essays by Mr. Helfand, published by The Grolier Club and available from them.

If one may quote at some length from the exhibit’s introductory panel that is not reproduced in the show’s catalogue:

This exhibition on medical quackery traces its prevalence from the itinerant seller of nostrums four centuries ago to unsolicited spam on the internet today. Early prints and broadsides suggest that the quack doctor’s lavish pronouncements and excessive postures were matched only by similarly exalted promises of therapeutic cure. Quacks dressed elaborately, inflated their credentials, and embraced a particularly extravagant vocabulary to market their panaceas, at times claiming their pills and salves would cure all disease. Some wryly observed that the quack’s nomadic nature was necessary to enable them to avoid the inevitable reprisals of dissatisfied customers. They were later succeeded by the makers of proprietary medicines, many of whom adopted quackery’s professional methods while, at the

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