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MICHAEL HEAP

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QUACKERY OF OLD

This article was first published in the Spring issue of volume 17 of the 'Skeptical Intelligencer', 2014, pp.3-5.

Last December my wife bought a calendar for 2007 entitled 'Forgotten English'. The calendar consists of a pad of about 314 pages, one for each day of the year or weekend. On each page is an archaic word and its definition plus some information on a historical event associated with that particular day or a short biography of someone born on that day.

The calendar is published by Pomegranate Press and each entry is marked 'copyright Jeffrey Kacirk'. Information presented on two days in July is of particular interest to sceptics.

For Saturday and Sunday the 7th and 8th of July, the word is 'pomster'. This is a West Country word that means 'to treat illness without knowledge or skill in medicine', the source being Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary, 1896-1905. In view of the current proclivity of purveyors of unproven (i.e. alternative or complementary) medicine to sue anyone who refers to them as 'quacks', perhaps the term 'pomster' will once again assume a place in popular discourse.

We are also informed that the weekend marks the birthday of John Romulus Brinkley (1885-1942), 'the king of American quackery'. Mr Brinkley practised in Milford, Kansas, having obtained his medical degree from a 'diploma mill' in Kansas City. One of his first 'remedies' was the injection of distilled water into his patients to 'increase their vigour'.

He later established the Brinkley Clinic, which specialised in 'goat glands for weary men'. This treatment involved 'the transplantation of goat glands' into the scrotum. His first patient was an old farmer who responded so well that he went on to sire a son, whom he aptly named 'Billy'. Treatment cost $750 and by the end of his life he had collected $12 million in fees. Of course, any comparison with modern alternative medicine is entirely spurious. (Oh no it isn't - Ed.)

On July 11th the word was 'gripe's egg', a vessel used by alchemists in the form of a vulture's egg (don't ask). The individual celebrated on that day is Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), a writer whose father was executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. According to the calendar, he was derided by his colleagues for his fascination with 'the six follies of science'. These are as follows: squaring the circle (finding a square the same area as a circle), perpetual motion, the philosopher's stone (a sought-after mineral believed to transform other metals into gold), magic, astrology, and the elixir of life.

The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened was published posthumously in 1669 and consisted of a collection of recipes that reflected his interest in food and medicine. It contained 'over fifty mead-making recipes'. One of these required 'Hyde Park Water', while another, ambiguously named 'An Approved Remedy for Biting of a Mad Dog' was touted by the author as 'excellent for man or beast'.