“Un remede pire que le mal”: Medical Quackery and Political Commentary in the Helfand Collection

This print, by J. J. Grandville, refers to bloodletting, a mainstay of medical practice well into the nineteenth century.

The prints in the Helfand collection of medical quackery ephemera (Print coll. 34) deliver a strong dose of medical skepticism. The eclectic collection spans chronologically from 1736 to 2006 (with some undated materials) and ranges in genre from toothpaste advertisements to hymn sheets distributed on saints’ feast days. This printed ephemera speaks to the public perception of medicine in an era of very minimal professional regulation. Until the last century, patients had to be wary about charlatans in order to guard themselves against financial exploitation and threats to their physical wellbeing from fraudulent or unqualified healers.

Hydropathy (also called “hydrotherapy” or “water cure”) was a therapeutic treatment popular in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the best-represented type of medical quackery ephemera in the collection is an assortment of caricatures and political cartoons from nineteenth century French periodicals and satirical newspapers. A print from one such publication shows three predatory looking doctors, with the heads of leeches, explaining to their frail and wide-eyed grasshopper patient that they will bleed him tomorrow. This is a reference to the once-popular practice of phlebotomy, an intentional withdrawal of blood to cure diseases or promote general health. Another comical print titled “Les Hydropathes” shows a man shivering under a torrent of ice water, part of a trendy health regimen meant to cleanse the body of impurities.

Lobau hovers above Paris on his flying syringe.

Other caricatures strike a political tone. A print published in 1831 shows Marshall Lobau, who had recently used fire hoses to intimidate protestors, perched atop a giant, flying clyster syringe. In a caricature published in Le Charivari in 1850, the politically active entrepreneur Louis-Desire Veron is depicted as a pharmacist, as he attempts to pulverize the newspaper’s mascot, a jester, with a mortar and pestle. Another image features an allegorical France being force-fed “un remede pire que le mal” (“a treatment worse than the disease”) by Veron. In these prints, medicine is employed as an expressive metaphor through which to comment upon politics: dissatisfaction with one sphere can be illustrated (literally) through derision of the other.

This allegorical print, “un remede pire que le mal,” uses medical themes to express a political sentiment.

While political commentary and criticism are still alive and well, the sentiment that carries through the Helfand collection –one of extreme distrust towards the medical establishment- is encountered much less frequently today. Part of this may be because of the great improvements in medicine that have taken place over the last three centuries. Where a physician might once have drained a pint of blood from an ill patient, today’s practitioner will prescribe antibiotics. Furthermore, the medical system has evolved. “Quackery” is now much less of a threat because medicine is strictly regulated. Doctors have to go through years of standardized training, and drugs are rigorously tested in clinical trials.

This print shows Veron in the role of quack pharmacist, a frequently-occurring character in nineteenth century French comical prints.

Yet the historical events that have elevated the sphere of medicine may also have carried a few disadvantages. While the process of medical professionalization (which took off in the early twentieth century) has created new kinds of scientific authority and expertise, it has probably also blocked some avenues for productive criticism of the field. Medicine today is not perfect, nor is our national healthcare system. As I look through the prints in the Helfand collection I am deeply appreciative of the quality of medicine available in the twenty first century – but also a little wistful for a type of lively, popular critique that seems to have fallen out of date.

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