Quacks, Alternative Medicine, and the U.S. Army in the First World War

During the First World War, the Surgeon General received numerous pitches for miraculous cures for sick and wounded American soldiers. Ranging from anti-sea sickness remedies to complex elixirs for treating diseases like tuberculosis and venereal disease, America’s “quack” and non-traditional medical practitioners sought a seat at the table. Serving as a barrier between established medical practices and non-professionally tested “cures,” the Army Medical Department and the Surgeon General worked to shield vulnerable ill soldiers from the potential dangers of the medically unknown.

Yet, at the same time, the military debated allowing the use of osteopaths in the ranks and used alternative medical techniques like hydrotherapy and essential oils for wound rehabilitation. This is part of the U.S. Army’s turbulent First World War relationship with alternative medicine.

American institutional medicine was still crystallizing at the turn of the twentieth century. Medical schools in the United States during the mid-to-late nineteenth century lagged behind those in Europe, largely focusing on lecture-learning with little hands on experience. It wasn’t until the first couple decades of the twentieth century that substantial changes took place in the practical education of American doctors, like adopting more rigorous standards, scientific research, hands-on experience, and university-hospital affiliations.1

Americans’ confidence in modern medicine didn’t always keep pace with the developments in medical proficiency. Alternative healing methods like herbalism, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, and massage therapy, were a major feature of turn-of-the-century American life.2

A person laying on a medical bed while a standing person in medical robes massages their thigh.
“Negative No. 41438: Kneading the thigh muscles.” (OHA 80: Reeve Collection, Box 41362-41533, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

Whether through frustration with “traditional” medical techniques or healing methods, medicine held a tenuous position in American society. And though alternative practitioners sought legitimacy from the American medical profession, the “regulars” budged little and opened doors to few specialties until the late-twentieth century, creating a multiplicity of cultural, political, and economic authority.3

One of the most telling battles over medical care was fought over osteopathy. While it’s a more established profession today, the field of musculoskeletal manipulators fought to offer services to sick soldiers. Despite the American Osteopathic Association’s (AOA) recurrent appeals, the Surgeon General’s Office had barred Osteopathy from Army medicine. It argued that Medical Corps candidates must be “graduates of reputable schools of medicine,” reflecting the entrenchment of the medical profession in the wake of Abraham Flexner’s eye-opening 1910 report on the poor state of American medical education.4

The Surgeon General did not distinguish the field from other “quack” disciplines, claiming that osteopaths were “merely physicians free to follow any method of treatment which they may deem beneficial” and that to admit “medical cults” would be “lowering the standards… of our Medical Corps.”5

The president of the AOA’s letter to President Wilson charting the state licensing and examination boards around the country did little to appeal to this decision.6 Despite evidence that osteopathy was regulated, AMD medical staff were reluctant to admit “fads and frills” so as not to cause veterans to “lose confidence in the doctors.”7

A blue sheet of paper with type-written lettering promoting Dr Brunsen's Famous Prescription for a proprietary medicine produced by R and C chemical company, Arkansas.
“Dr. Brunson’s Famous Prescription.” (RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 403, Folder: unmarked, US National Archives)

Osteopaths joined a flood of alternative medical practitioners seeking to treat American soldiers who returned with debilitating wounds and illnesses. Service in the First World War exposed soldiers to dangers on and off the battlefield, including tuberculosis, shell shock, gas gangrene, or burns from poison gas, and even the Army Medical Department regularly used some forms of alternative medicine in their desire to treat these and other ailments. For example, military physicians used essential oils like eucalyptus oil to treat laryngeal burns from mustard gas and wintergreen oil for rheumatic patients.8

They also used other “alternative” rehabilitation techniques like hydrotherapy, light or heliotherapy, and massage therapy and joint manipulation to treat musculoskeletal issues or other war wounds. Despite this fact, however, many individuals sought to capitalize on the war’s mass injury and illness, positioning themselves as patriotic for offering their magical elixirs to returning soldiers.

Between 1917 and the early 1920s, the Surgeon General received dozens of letters offering medicine to treat a range of maladies. Chelius Pixley from Chicago offered one of many “anti-seasick” remedies.9 W.H. Whitmore argued that his Persian Ointment to treat skin irritation was small enough even to fit “in the knapsack of each soldier.”10 Frederick Forbush of Boston allegedly had a cure for shell shock.11

Two seated people, one in medical clothing and the other in army clothing, facing each other. The nurse is massaging the patient's arm.
“Negative No. 41492: Technique of Massage.” (OHA 80: Reeve Collection, Box 41362-41533, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

Still others offered treatments ranging from rheumatic vapors and herbal remedies for syphilis to “pure food” therapy for the “cure” of tuberculosis.12 Mrs. Maude Kellsy of Iowa wrote that she “discovered a cure for rheumatism and would like to help cure our boys who have given their health for our protection.”13 And Will Atkinson offered his cure for syphilitic rheumatism not for money but to “serve my country.”14

Some of the medicinal appeals were slightly more comical. In May 1919, a “Mr. Woods” contacted the Surgeon General, writing, “Two weeks ago the spirit of Martin Luther … asked me to send you this writting [sic] I had on shell-shock for about two years.” He argued that if the Surgeon General didn’t accept it he may send it to help German veterans. The remedy consisted of a regimen of opium, best inhaled near a windowsill “so that fumes are blowed [sic] back to patients.” After this the patients should boil shellfish for thirty minutes, let the water cool, and then drink a half wine glass full, three times a day.15

Corporal Alberto Russo also appealed to the department with his “sure cure” for rheumatism: collecting the “blood of the ordinary water turtle” by cutting the main vessel of the turtle and letting the blood fall on the part affected, then wrapping it with flannel. He claimed to have tried this method on a friend who was able to “discard his crutches and return to his work.”16

A close-up of the lower half of a person laying on a white-draped medical bed with one leg exposed. A black apparatus shaped like a half cylinder is suspended over the leg.
“Heating Apparatus.” (OHA 353: Vogel Collection, Box 003, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

The Army Medical Department had procedures for the many offers they received. While many writers sought to use the veteran population as a testing ground for their methods, it didn’t come that easy. Inventors frequently sent inquiries with samples, which were typically disregarded outright. The Army Medical Department responded that military doctors already had sufficient treatments for whichever ailment they were writing about.

Others, like the cream Cytol, were sent to U.S. Army General Hospital No. 1 in New York City, which was affiliated with Columbia University’s College of Pharmacy, to be tested. While Cytol promised to be a cure all for wounds and illnesses, it actually proved to be a “simple emollient, possessing no special medicinal properties” with “no effect upon the rate of healing.”17

One prominent example of medical men seeking to test their work on the veteran population is with the Porter Tuberculosis Treatment. Dr. Alexander Porter captivated officials with his tuberculosis cure so much so that Senator James Wadsworth of New York State arranged a meeting for him with the Surgeon General.18 After his meeting, further testing concluded the treatment was no more than “ordinary coal oil” that produces an “irritating cough” and is “practically identical with coal oil.”19

Dr. Asa Brunson also marketed his inhaled gas spray as a remedy for tuberculosis. Motivated by the sympathy for suffering veterans, Congressman Charles Ogden from Kentucky urged its use at William Beaumont Hospital. Ongoing investigations into Brunson’s work later revealed that he dangerously and willfully misled many of his patients into believing the efficacy of their treatment.20

The First World War, if nothing else, was successful in producing mass quantities of sick and disabled people. Still in the process of professionalizing and discovering, American medicine could aid many but not all in their hopeful recoveries. There were coordinated and less threatening attempts, specifically from American Osteopaths, offering their services in place of professional recognition, but numerous self-styled and non-traditional healers sought to capitalize on returning veterans with questionable elixirs and sketchy methods.

The Army Medical Department therefore served as a filter through which veteran health measures — either realistic or potentially harmful — flowed. Without these regulatory efforts, it’s possible that already-suffering veterans could have been further damaged by the treatments intended to help them.

Notes

  1. Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Return to text.
  2. Roger Cooter, ed., Studies in the History of Alternative Medicine (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), pp. xiii-xiv. Return to text.
  3. Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1982), p. 9; James C. Whorton, Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 285. Return to text.
  4. Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 166. Return to text.
  5. The Surgeon General to the Secretary of War, December 16, 1920, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 431, Folder 730: Osteopathy, US National Archives. Return to text.
  6. O.J. Snyder to President Woodrow Wilson, undated, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 431, Folder 730: Osteopathy, US National Archives. Return to text.
  7. Memo to the Commanding Officer of Fitzimmons General Hospital, “Chemical Basis for the Treatment of Tuberculosis by Louise Robinovitch,” June 14, 1923, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 403, Folder: unmarked, US National Archives. Return to text.
  8. Francis R. Packard, “Personal Observations in Oto-Laryngology in France During the War,” Transactions of the Forty First Annual Meeting of the American Laryngological Association (Cleveland: The American Laryngological Association, 1919), p. 319; Commanding Officer to the Surgeon General, “Patients in Hospital Two Months or More” January 31, 1919, RG 112, Series UD 8, Box 942, Folder 705: Report of Overseas Cases, US National Archives. Return to text.
  9. Chelius Pixley to the Surgeon General, January 8, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Seasickness, US National Archives. Return to text.
  10. W.H. Whitmore to the Surgeon General, February 20, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Skin Disease, US National Archives. Return to text.
  11. Frederick A. Forbush to the Surgeon General, May 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Shell Shock, US National Archives. Return to text.
  12. Marko Gacina to the Surgeon General, September 5, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Syphillis, US National Archives; Mrs. R. Trattner to the Surgeon General, May 13, 1919, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 403, Folder: unmarked, US National Archives. Return to text.
  13. Maude Kellsy to the Surgeon General, May 1919, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Rheumatism, US National Archives. Return to text.
  14. Will Atkinson to the Secretary of War, April 22, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Rheumatism, US National Archives. Return to text.
  15. Mr. Woods to the Surgeon General, May 1919, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Shell Shock, US National Archives. Return to text.
  16. Alberto Russo to the Surgeon General, “Cure for Rheumatism,” October 10, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Rheumatism, US National Archives. Return to text.
  17. Chief of Surgical Service at U.S. Army General Hospital No. 1 to the Surgeon General, “Report: Clinical Value of ‘Cytol’”, May 16, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 402, Folder 713: Skin Disease, US National Archives. Return to text.
  18. James Wadsworth to the Surgeon General, November 5, 1923, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 403, Folder: unmarked, US National Archives. Return to text.
  19. Report on Investigation of the Porter Treatment of Tuberculosis With Vaporized Oil” December 28, 1923, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 403, Folder: unmarked, US National Archives. Return to text.
  20. Charles Ogden to the Secretary of War, March 9, 1922, RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 403, Folder: unmarked, US National Archives Return to text.

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