Photo credit: Sung Park
British doctor John Elliotson was a senior physician at University Hospital, London, in 1837 when he began violating all sorts of future codes of medical ethics by publicly experimenting with two adolescent girls dubbed the Okey Sisters. The girls had been admitted to University Hospital for treatment of epilepsy. Elliotson was at the time enthralled by the newly introduced medicinal practice of “mesmerism,” with tales drifting into London about a successful doctor in India who had been using hypnosis to help treat his patients. While hypnosis as a medical technique certainly has some efficacy, its mysterious qualities (even today the phenomenon is little understood) made it ripe for exploitation.
Elliotson was for most of his career a well-respected physician, if perhaps a bit too willing to leap to the cutting edge of medical theory. He pioneered the use of the stethoscope (score!), but also was fascinated by phrenology and, particularly in his later years, became obsessed with mesmerism and clairvoyance.
Elliotson was experimenting furiously with hypnotic technique for the treatment of patients when the Okey sisters were admitted to his London hospital in 1837. They seemed to him ideal subjects — and really, a perfect opportunity — to promote the new powers of medical hypnosis. However, since this was 19th-century London, Elliotson had no intention of conducting a scientifically rigorous study under controlled conditions. Instead, he opted for the stage. The public stage. With paid admission for spectators.
The good doctor began conducting elaborate stage shows with the Okey Sisters in the theatrical spectacle that was the 19th-century London hospital. After seemingly inducing hypnotic states in the sisters, Elliotson would insert a needle into their necks and then under their fingernails to demonstrate their imperviousness to pain.
And it only got worse from there.
Elliotson made the girls go rigid or swoon on command, and demonstrate seemingly incredible feats of strength. (The sexual undertones of publicly hypnotizing young girls were also not lost on the Victorian audience). Predictably, seats at Elliotson’s shows were sold out, impossible to find unless you were well-connected. Aristocracy mingled with physicians and journalists, all anxious to watch the experiments in progress. London itself was ablaze with debate over Elliotson’s performances. They were a short-lived but intense cultural phenomena.
They seemed to him ideal subjects — and really, a perfect opportunity — to promote the new powers of medical hypnosis.
Amongst the attendees was none other than Charles Dickens
, who was greatly impressed, and arranged a meeting with Elliotson that launched a long friendship between the author and physician. Elliotson taught Dickens his mesmerism technique and Dickens promptly went home to practice. The author even claimed to have healed some of his friends through his mesmeric techniques. Later commentators have gone so far as to attribute Dickens’s own enormously successful lecture tours to his ability to “mesmerize” the audience.
All cultural phenomena must end, however, and so it was with Elliotson’s shows. The popularity of the Okey Sisters was their undoing, as they attracted the close attention of journalists and physicians who figured something was a bit… off. A series of investigations launched by Thomas Wakely — founding editor of The Lancet
— determined unequivocally that the Okey Sisters were frauds. Wakely concluded that Elliotson was being purposefully duped by the sisters, a viewpoint which was similarly adopted by the trustees of the University Hospital where Elliotson was employed.
The hospital administrators politely suggested — then eventually demanded — that the physician cease and desist his public experiments with the Okey Sisters and discharge them from the hospital.
Elliotson responded, in what must have surely felt like an enormously satisfying gesture, by promptly resigning his position.
Although his medical career was significantly damaged by the report, Elliotson benefited from the friendship of Dickens after he quit the Hospital, who introduced Elliotson to his large circle of wealthy friends. Elliotson briefly remained in demand as a private physician among the London elite, and the Okey Sisters drifted off into obscurity. Elliotson’s medical convictions, however, were increasingly frenetic and fringe. Desperately clinging to his belief in hypnotic practice, Elliotson launched a “mesmeric infirmary” and a dubious medical journal called The Zoist
. His enthusiasms eventually lost him his patronage, as London’s wealthy citizens became interested in new medicinal trends (and in actually healing themselves). By the time the doctor died in 1868 at age 76, he was penniless.
Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
, a book I cowrote with Dr. Lydia Kang, MD, is filled with stories like these. It’s a bit morbid, a bit funny, and, hopefully at all times, interesting. Mankind’s eternal quest for health and longevity has led to some fascinating, wacky, and fascinatingly wacky decisions over the centuries. These bad decisions led to plenty of stories Lydia and I could mine for their absurdity and humor (radium suppositories, anyone?), but the really sobering bit about studying medical quackery throughout history is that it doesn’t take long to recognize that even now, with centuries of medicinal practice behind us, we are still grasping in the dark way more often than most of us care to recognize. Who knows what tried and true treatment in 2017 will be laughed at — or worse, recognized as incredibly dangerous — by future generations of medical historians? So we can’t laugh too long or hard at our ancestors without also laughing at ourselves and our own eternal quests for health. And that, hopefully, is the ultimate takeaway from Quackery
: maintain a critical eye when examining medical claims (and, if possible, your sense of humor).
After reading this book, you can at least be thankful that doctors are no longer suggesting you take heroin to cure your morphine addiction.
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is a librarian, historian, and freelance journalist with over 400 publications in print and online, including in The Guardian
, The Believer
, The San Francisco Chronicle
, and The Art of Manliness
. Nate is a contributing writer for the magazine Fine Books and Collections
, where he investigates the strange and unusual side of the rare book market. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
is his first book.