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Quackery by Lydia Kang, M.D. and Nate Pedersen


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After I reviewed Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang, M.D., one of our commenters requested that I review Lydia Kang’s nonfiction book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything (co-written by Nate Pedersen). Well, gosh, it’s a sacrifice, but if I MUST read a book full of weird historical semi-medical remedies for things like Bubonic Plague, well, then I guess I must.

I do it for you, Bitches.

Quackery is what I call a good bathroom book. It has tiny short sections in the event that one’s visit to the lavatory is a brief one, but is interesting enough to hold my attention when I’m trapped there for a long time (I have medical issues, none of which I plan to treat with any of the cures mentioned in this book). If I MUST spend so much time upon the porcelain throne, I like to at least leave with the satisfaction of knowing that I learned something while I was there, such as the fact that Hitler consumed a lot of mercury orally and had chamomile tea enemas. Would history have been different if he had ditched the mercury and drank the tea?

The most glaring flaw of the book is that it is both too much and not enough of a good thing. The book has generously-sized type and a lot of illustrations, but it still only comes to 330 pages. The chapters are “The Elements,” “Plants and Soil,” “Tools,” “Animals,” and “Mysterious Powers,” with 5 – 8 subheadings in each chapter. This means that the reader gets a little information about a lot of topics, and I would have liked for the book to go more in depth in every section. There is an index, but I could have used a dictionary as well. Most medical terms are explained in the course of the book, but a few fell through the cracks.

On the other hand, this book does include some sublime illustrations, assuming that one considers drawings of amputation techniques to be sublime. I’m especially fond of the illustration detailing the anatomy of leeches, which are still used (sparingly) today. The book isn’t exactly gory (given all that bloodletting, not much blood actually appears in the pages), but the photos of surgical instruments are terrifying. Also of note: the reader gets a close-up view of scrofula growths, so this is not a book for the squeamish.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy trivia, the stranger the better, in the areas of history, science vs. pseudoscience, and medicine. This book works especially well if you want something that’s easy to pick up and put down, and that will neither insult your intelligence nor make you work too hard. I wish this book had gone more in depth with regard to its many, barely detailed topics, but it works well as an entry point for hours of Googling.

Quackery was written prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, but it is horrifyingly relevant as contemporary modern quackery abounds and flourishes. The field of medicine is constantly changing, but some things have been definitively proven, using the highest standards of testing and investigation. Seeing where we’ve been and how far we’ve come in terms of improving medical treatment and disease prevention through short pieces of history was very reassuring.

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