Why Are Doctors Called Quacks? (Origins Of Quackery)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

The term “quack” is often associated with medical practitioners who are considered to be fraudulent or unqualified.

Despite its negative connotations, you might be curious to know where this nickname for doctors originated.

Doctors may be called quacks as a way to call into question their treatment methods or ethics. The word “quack” can be traced back to the Old Dutch term “quacksalver,” which originally meant “hawker of salve”, but has evolved to mean those who falsely claim to possess medical expertise.

Throughout history, there have been countless instances of individuals promoting dubious medical practices, even during times of widespread illness such as plagues and pandemics.

In these situations, desperation often drove people to seek help from anyone who claimed to have a cure or treatment, even if they lacked the necessary qualifications or knowledge.

As a result, the word “quack” became synonymous with those who preyed on the vulnerable and exploited them for financial gain.

Origins Of The Term ‘Quack’

The term ‘quack’ has a rich history, with its origins dating back to the 17th century.

It is derived from the Old Dutch word ‘quacksalver’ or ‘kwakzalver’, which originally meant “hawker of salve.”

The word was used to describe people who sold medicine, often claiming knowledge or skill in medicine that they did not truly possess.

As the sale of ‘miracle cures’ became more widespread, many of these peddlers began offering fake potions and remedies to unsuspecting customers.

Consequently, the term ‘quack’ evolved to refer to a charlatan or someone who falsely claimed expertise in medicine.

The Charlatan Tooth Puller (1620–1625), by Flemish artist Theodoor Rombouts

In the Middle Ages, ‘quack’ also carried the meaning of “shouting”, as these so-called healers would often hawk their wares at markets by shouting to gain attention.

This practice led to the term ‘quack’ becoming associated with the peddling of false cures and fraudulent practices within the medical field.

In the 19th century, the number of quack doctors significantly exceeded those with legitimate medical backgrounds, outnumbering them by a ratio of three to one.

This growth in quackery was primarily driven by an increasing interest in scientific advancements as well as an expanding and open market.

Today, the word ‘quack’ is commonly used to describe unqualified doctors or individuals who engage in the dishonest promotion of ineffective and potentially harmful medical treatments.

While the term’s historical roots provide insight into its evolution, its modern usage serves as a reminder of the importance of seeking legitimate, evidence-based medical care.

Regulation And Licensing Of Medical Practitioners

The medical profession has always maintained an ongoing effort to provide the public with the highest quality of care.

One crucial aspect of this endeavour is the regulation and licensing of medical practitioners, which ensures that healthcare providers possess the necessary qualifications and skills to practice their craft.

In the UK, doctors are regulated by the General Medical Council, or GMC, who maintain a list of every doctor licensed to practice in Britain.

One of the key aspects of health professional regulatory bodies is controlling scopes of practice, which determines what tasks healthcare providers are permitted to undertake.

This involves applying evidence-based professional standards to the set of tasks for which health professionals receive training.

This way, the public can be confident that their healthcare providers are operating within the bounds of their expertise.

Throughout history, the field of medicine has evolved, demanding stricter regulations and clearer distinctions between different types of practitioners.

Why Doctors Are Called Quacks Pixel Infographic

In the 1800s, the field began to blur the lines between surgeons and physicians, as these physician-surgeons started to seek higher degrees.

The term “doctor” began to be associated with those who held specialised knowledge and had earned a university degree.

In the modern day, only people who have earned a degree from a GMC-accredited university, or undergone a full professional assessment, are eligible to be added to the list of registered healthcare practitioners maintained by the GMC.

Modern-Day Quacks And Misconceptions

While the notion of a quack doctor might seem outdated, the issue of medical misinformation and fake cures still very much persists in modern times.

The rise of the internet and social media has significantly contributed to the dissemination of health-related misconceptions.

It has become increasingly easy for individuals to pass along false information to large audiences, potentially leading to harmful consequences for those who take these claims at face value.

One pertinent example of this is the huge amount of disinformation that surrounded the COVID vaccines, with plenty of others being discussed in Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science.

Some modern-day quacks may even operate under the guise of being medical professionals, using their fake credentials to mislead those seeking medical advice.

An important misconception, however, is that all alternative medicine practitioners are inherently quacks.

While it is true that some alternative medicine providers may promote potentially ineffective or even dangerous treatments, it is important to recognise that the field also includes legitimate professionals who practice evidence-based approaches.

The distinction lies in the practitioner’s commitment to relying on scientific evidence, transparency in communication, and adherence to medical ethics.

The Danger Quacks Pose To Patients

A quack’s lack of formal medical training makes them ill-equipped to diagnose and treat medical conditions accurately.

Quacks often prey on vulnerable and desperate individuals, who may be seeking help for ailments that have been challenging to treat or are experiencing financial or logistical difficulties in accessing qualified doctors.

One of the main risks associated with quacks is the administration of incorrect or potentially harmful treatments.

These individuals often rely on home remedies or their own fabricated “cures” to treat patients.

In some cases, the treatments may be useless or merely act as a placebo. In more severe cases, the treatments can exacerbate an existing condition or cause new problems.

Another danger posed by quacks is the spread of misinformation.

Since they are not educated in the field of medicine, their medical advice is often based on flawed assumptions, outdated information, or personal beliefs.

This can lead to patients receiving incorrect diagnoses or treatments that are ineffective or even harmful, ultimately putting their health and well-being at risk.

Additionally, patients who seek help from quacks may be delaying proper medical care from qualified professionals.

By placing their trust in these impostors, patients can lose valuable time that could be used to receive a correct diagnosis and effective treatment, in turn leading to further health complications.

Final Thoughts

Today, the term “quack” is generally reserved for those who engage in disingenuous or harmful medical practices, while modern physicians take pride in delivering safe and evidence-based care.

To combat the dangers that quacks pose, it is essential for individuals seeking medical care to be aware of the warning signs, such as unrealistic guarantees of success, lack of medical credentials, or reluctance to disclose treatment methods.

By staying informed and vigilant, patients can protect themselves from the risks and potential harm caused by quacks and leave their medical care in the hands of qualified doctors.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.