Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen is two parts gasping at astounding purported medical cures. It’s also one part rubbernecker can’t look away no matter how yucky the example might be. I thoroughly enjoyed both aspects, along with the quirky images and snappy writing style.

Studying medical history is something unexpected for me. But I’m more fascinated with it than ever, after living in a pandemic. Our news channels and social media are chock full of medical experts, some more relevant than others. 

I couldn’t help but combine today’s medical info overload with Quackery. For example, what if Dr. Fauci was a fan of bloodletting or the radium cure instead of being a public health expert? “Think you have COVID-19? Let me remove a pint of your blood. I also have this radioactive solution that costs a fortune. One or the other should cure you.” Or kill you …

Using poisons as cures was accepted procedure during history. Believing that the air (more accurately called miasma) you breathed resulted in sickness was also common. But ingesting corpse dust or implanting goat testicles? Yeah, I didn’t know about that. And suggest you don’t read about it during lunch.

Alternately, Quackery explains the progression from dangerous to safer surgery, due to the work of folks like Dr. Lister. It also covers the various options in anesthesia. These are changes that we benefit from today. But thankfully, leeches and lobotomies have moved to the wayside.

My conclusions

It seems strange to say Quackery is a fun book. So much of it explains the grossest and most barbaric parts of medical history. Whether motivated simply by money or by a genuine desire to help cure people, the things “experts” did are truly gobsmacking. 

But Kang and Pederson break it all down and tell the tales with a blend of research, irony, and sarcasm. Considering Kang is a physician, I trust the details were accurate. But never fear, it’s all translated into English for the regular person. No need to pull out your medical dictionary or even refer to Dr. Google.

I also appreciated the audiobook narration from Hillary Huber, who injects just the right tone to match the authors’ attitudes. 

If you enjoy medical history especially of the quack-ish variety, this book is for you. Pair with something staider like City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris or The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine.