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Why are unqualified doctors called ‘Quacks’ ?

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‘The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease’ – Voltaire


The word quack, meaning a charlatan, is an abbreviation of quack-salver, an old Dutch word used in the 17th century (spelled ‘kwakzalver’ in the modern Dutch).

Kwakzalver is used to mean, a fraud.

Quackersalver is a person who dishonestly claims knowledge or skill in medicine; a peddler of false cures. The root of the word charlatan comes from Cerreto, a place in Italy widely known for quacks. The word soon evolved to mean a cheat.

To quack is to utter the characteristic harsh, croaking sound, like a duck; and hence secondarily, to talk noisily and to make vain and loud pretensions. And a salver is one who undertakes to perform cures by the application of ointments. Hence the term quack-salver.

The qualified medical practitioners commonly used the word ‘quack’ to discredit anyone whom they disagreed with, especially the unqualified ones.

Quackery was at its peak in the 1700s in Europe especially in cities such as London and Paris as they had weak regulations against unqualified practitioners.

They made a fortune by taking advantage of people’s fears, especially during the plague and cholera epidemics. Quackery was a common profession and quacks went around advertising cures and secret remedies for all diseases without fear.

It was only in 1858 that the Medical Register was created under the Medical Act in the UK, to regulate the qualifications of practitioners in medicine and surgery. It was supposed to be a repository of registered and qualified doctors.

According to the act, only registered doctors could sell medicines or give medical advice. The main purpose of the act was to stop the operations of quacks and charlatans. In 1860 Richard Organ was the first doctor whose name was erased from the register as his name was fraudulently entered in the register.

While the quacks quickly disappeared, the name stuck and has been associated with medical practitioners ever since.

Today doctors are jocularly referred to as quacks.

Veena Srivastava is a News Contributor for QuackTrack, an Advertising and PR professional,  Storyteller, and Life Skills Facilitator & Trainer.


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