Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘impotence’

This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of December 2013.
by Caroline Rance.

Charlotte Street, following the line of the modern A400 leading off Bedford Square (and distinct from the Charlotte Street west of Tottenham Court Road) became home in around 1862 to an elusive and morally dubious fellow named Dr Charles Daniel Hammond.

Detail from Smith's Map of London 1860

Quack Central. Bloomsbury from Smith’s Map of London, 1860.

Perhaps ironically for someone with a website and book called The Quack Doctor, I try to avoid branding nineteenth-century medicine vendors ‘quacks’. The demarcation between orthodox physicians and the practitioners on the fringes of their profession was blurred. Treatments from either were often ineffective or harmful. Medical qualifications came with no guarantee of trustworthiness, and a lack of certificates was no guarantee of incompetence.

There are cases, however, where I have fewer qualms about referring to ‘quackery’, and that’s when evidence suggests a practitioner was deliberately out to extort money. Hammond and his associates fall firmly into this category.

They were involved in a lucrative field of bogus medicine centred on historically specific anxieties about masculinity. The fictive disease of ‘spermatorrhoea’ – an involuntary leakage of semen thought to render its sufferer physically and morally weakened – is less well-known than the comparable phenomenon of female hysteria. Yet it ‘existed’ as a medical expression of the anti-masturbation rhetoric that remained under the influence of the eighteenth-century Onania and the work of Samuel-Auguste Tissot. Widely accepted by doctors, the condition was subject to unpleasant treatments that enabled quacks to denounce the medical profession and promote their own comparatively easy and discreet cures.

Perhaps it would be wise not to go into too much detail about this background in case it gets London Historians’ fine newsletter condemned to the spam bins, so I’ll focus instead on some of the practical methods Hammond and those like him used to attract and retain patients.

Francis Burdett Courtenay, a surgeon who used the pseudonym ‘Detector’ to expose the activities of quacks in a series of letters to the Medical Circular, cited the case of an anxious young man who answered Hammond’s advertisement for an ‘Electric, Curative and Phosphoric Vitaliser.’ The reply asked for two guineas for a ‘self-curative’ belt – the man sent the money, but received only some medicine and lotion in return. Annoyed that he didn’t get what he paid for, he wrote back to complain.

Hammond’s reply was calculated to induce terror. He had looked further into the case (even though he had never actually seen the man) and decided ‘a slight disease of the kidneys’, was causing semen to drain away.

‘This vital waste is not only capable of causing all the symptoms you detail, but such is the sympathy existing between the generative functions and the brain, that should this drain of the most vital of all your secretions be not immediately arrested, your whole system must suffer very serious derangement, whilst the organs of generation themselves will become vitiated and relapse into a state of utter impotency.’

Added to this was the horrifying prospect of ‘withering and wasting’. In case the lad wasn’t already anxious enough, Hammond predicted that his case would end in insanity. But, thank goodness, he had sought help just in time!

The patient ended up sending another two guineas, and while it would be easy to call him gullible for throwing good money after bad, there’s nothing funny about being inexperienced and scared that there’s something seriously wrong with you.

The belt – when it eventually turned up – was an ordinary suspensory bandage, holding up a circle of metal pieces through which the patient had to place the part concerned. This was supposed to provide ‘a continuous current of electricity, which is taken up by the whole system, infusing new life and “manly vigour” into the debilitated or relaxed frame.’ Unsurprisingly (and perhaps fortunately) it did not work. Hammond’s patent, filed in 1864, shows that it had no way of generating a current.

Dr Hammond's Curative Vitaliser

Eye-watering. Patent diagram of Dr Hammond’s Curative Vitaliser.

But how did Hammond reach prospective patients like this young man?

In the newspaper advertising columns of the 1860s, it is common to find a plethora of competing practitioners all targeting such ‘nervous’ male readers. They promote their own books and electric belt devices, using eye-catching straplines such as ‘Electricity is Life’ and ‘Electricity at Home.’ The reader worried about his health could take his pick from Dr Hammond at 11 Charlotte Street; H. James, (Medical Electrician) at Percy House; Dr Watson at No. 1, South Crescent, Bedford Square; W. Halle Esq. at 1 South Crescent, Store Street, and W. H. Hill Esq. at Berkeley House.

What choice! Yet his letter would arrive at one of only two actual buildings – the changing identities of the practitioners were as fluid as the patients’ own spermatorrhoeic bodily state.

These advertisements were not aimed at the Londoner who could walk to Store Street or Charlotte Street and readily discover the duplicity. Instead, they were placed in newspapers across the country in the hope of attracting mail order custom. The dissatisfied punter of one practitioner could try his luck with another, unaware that his money was going into the same pocket.

Dr Hammond advert

A typical ad, this one from The Edinburgh Courant in 1869.

While Hammond and ‘Henry James’ operated from one address in Charlotte Street, Dr Charles Watson and William Hill Esq. were based just down the road in South Crescent. They advertised information on the:

‘SELF-CURE OF NERVOUS AND PHYSICAL DEBILITY. Wasting of the Vital Fluids, and withering of the Nervous Tissues, Lassitude, Loss of Energy and Appetite, Groundless Fears, and other Disorders of the Sexual System; presented to Sufferers, in order to lay bare the hidden causes of those maladies which afflict Humanity, and afford such advice as will effect a cure in the majority of cases, without dangerous Medicines and expensive consultations, which may be dispensed with.’

Courtenay viewed the Watson-Hill partnership as distinct from the Hammond-James one, but the striking similarities between them make it possible that the two concerns were linked. They used almost identical false qualifications, both subscribed to voluntary hospitals in order to imply that they had an official connection with them, used similar language in their advertising and both held genuine patents for galvanic devices. The name ‘Watson’ is occasionally cited by Hammond’s critics as one of the latter’s aliases, suggesting that they were considered part of the same group even if the technicalities of who was who are rather obscure.

By advertising in the provincial press under multiple names and addresses, the mid-nineteenth-century quack could take advantage of both geographical and personal distance from his patients, advising them by standard letter that he had ‘given their case mature consideration’ and concluded that they were in danger of impotence. As well as reducing the chance of repercussions if patients were dissatisfied, this system also enabled the compilation of mailing lists of likely prospects, who could be sent pamphlets from more than one alias in the hope that they would respond.

The system of distance, however, could also appear advantageous to the patient, who need not take time away from his business or domestic roles, and was not even obliged to give his real name. It is easy to see that this had some appeal compared with the prospect of consulting the family doctor and admitting one’s embarrassing concerns face to face. The agreement of anonymity in remote diagnosis served the immediate purposes of both practitioner and patient, enabling the perpetuation of practices that ultimately left the latter out of pocket.


London Historians member Caroline Rance is the author of several books on the subject of the history of medicine, including The Quack Doctor: Historical Remedies for All Your Ills (2013) and The History of Medicine in 100 Facts (2015). 

Read Full Post »