Being a little pale and indisposed of late - no doubt from wandering around in a cold and snowy cemetery - the lacklustre VV has obeyed her doctor's advice and taken to the warmth of her bed, sipping hot toddies and blowing her nose in the most ladylike of fashions.

But not all conditions are so easily remedied and sometimes - as in the case of John and Effie Ruskin - the bed can be the source of distress rather than the scene of recovery. When such embarrassing situations occur the afflicted Victorian gentleman might prefer to seek advice from quacks rather than the family medic.

With this in mind it is with great delight that the VV welcomes a guest blog from her illustrious friend The Quack Doctor - who possesses 'historical remedies for all your ills' and who will now go on to explain how those faced with such delicate predicaments might once have sought relief from ...


Quacks in all times and places need patients, and some patients make better targets than others. Among them are those embarrassed by their condition and reluctant to consult a doctor. Throughout the 19th century, erectile dysfunction – known as impotence, nervous debility or loss of manly vigour – created a lucrative preying ground for dodgy practitioners.

A man bold enough to seek medical help might be lucky, as in a case related by Professor A. T. Thomson in 1836. The patient's problems pretty much boiled down to him not fancying his wife, so Thomson advised:

....during the act of coition, to fill his imagination with the image of a young woman with whom, at one period of his life, he had had an illicit connexion, and for whom he acknowledged he still retained a great partiality.

As a novelist, I find this poignant, and wonder what happened to the young woman, and whether they ever met again, and whether the wife also had a young man to think of. But anyway, back to the matter in hand. Other patients didn't get off so lightly. Phosphorus, steel and strychnine were common treatments, while some doctors still favoured the long-established remedy cantharides (Spanish fly or blister beetle), taken internally or via eye-watering injections into the urethra.

No wonder patients sought an easier option, and quacks were only too happy to take advantage. Their nerve-strengthening pills and cordial balsams promised natural, painless treatment and a relative anonymity that was preferable to an awkward face-to-face consultation with the family doctor.

In the middle of the century, dubious London practitioners such Drs Kahn, Hammond, Watson and De Roos fuelled patients' concerns with pamphlets persuading them that any leakage of 'generative fluid' was the result of youthful indiscretion or self-abuse and would lead to impotence and insanity.

A typical 1868 booklet by Dr Lionel Elliott (who I suspect was an alias of Hammond) set out the consequences of avoiding treatment:

...forfeiture and suspension of the proper powers of manhood, deprivation of the joys and comforts of matrimony, unfruitfulness, absence of children, or the birth of sickly, deformed and short-lived ones, early decay, confusion, vacillation, and weakness of mind, deficiency of nervous power, malignant eruptions, pains in the back, the head, the limbs &c., all sufficiently afflicting in themselves, but only the forerunners of the utter impotence, prostration, degradation and intolerable misery which will inevitably ensue if not warded off by science and reason.

The cure was the Electro-Galvanic Improved Patent Self-Adjusting Curative Appliance – a belt contraption supposed to supply health-giving electricity. While some electric belt brands, such as Pulvermacher's, did yield a current, the less reputable ones were bereft of the promised tingling sensation – one peddled by Dr Hammond, for example, was a basic suspensory bandage with fancy-looking metal plates stitched in.

By the turn of the 20th century, vacuum pump devices had joined the newspaper advertising columns, although they had been invented in about 1820. They comprised a metal or glass cylinder with a hand crank or, in later versions, a rubber bulb to suck out the air. This American example claimed that 'It makes no difference how severe the case or how long standing, it is as sure to yield to our treatment as the sun is to rise.' 


Perhaps 'long standing' wasn't the most sensitive choice of words, but the proprietors wanted to present the treatment as convenient and simple, with 'no drugs to ruin the stomach.' This, like other patent remedies, appeared an easy, discreet option for the patient. The advertisers could offer a money-back guarantee, safe in the knowledge that if it didn't work, the double embarrassment of having a 'secret' condition and having been scammed would be enough to keep most punters quiet. Judging by the contents of today's spam folders, such dubious practices have certainly not lost their vigour.

The Quack Doctor

The Quack Doctor is otherwise known as Caroline Rance, the talented author of Kill-Grief - a novel based a little before the VV's time, being in the 1750's, but no less fascinating for that. It tells the story of Mary Helsall, a young woman who works as a nurse in Chester, a world of 'Cursing drivers, bellowing poultry hawkers, beer-fuelled brawlers - the city seemed made of gaping mouths. Stumps of teeth as rotten as taters, gums mashed by scurvy, noses crumpled by the pox. Mary squeezed round a horde of men outside a tavern, their armpits level with her nostrils. Beyond their oniony heat and the blast of ale fumes, the air chilled her face.' 

If that has whetted your appetite, you can read more about Caroline Rance and Kill-Grief here.


  1. Interesting (if slightly painful-sounding) post. I will do just that.

  2. good points, they were pretty helpful