Quack Curers for the Deaf

During the 1830s, Alexander Turnbull (c.1794-1881), advertised a remedy he conjured, which he professed was capable of curing any cases of deafness not arising from organic disease. In particular, he advocated the use of veratria, a poisonous alkaloid obtained from the hellebore root, as an ointment applied to the external ear; the same treatment, along with other alkaloids from the Ranunculaceæ were also amongst several of his treatment options for deafness, gout, dropsy, rheumatism, and affections of the heart.[1] Six pages of Turnbull’s 1837 A Treatise on Painful and Nervous Affections, and a New Mode of Treatment for Diseases of the Ear were devoted to the application of veratria to the external ear and parts joining the auricle. Terming his treatment as “electro-stimulation,” Turnbull claims

Feeling satisfied that I had in my possession means decidedly effective in promoting absorption through the medium of the nerves, and knowing that deafness often arose from the Eustachian tube being obstructed by enlarged tonsil glands, I applied veratria externally over these glands, and found it frequently succeed in removing their enlargement and restoring the hearing.[2]

Signing off with the initials “J.T.,” on 5 April 1839, Joseph Toynbee (1815-1866) wrote to the Lancet warning readers of “quack curers for the deaf” that were printed in London’s daily newspapers that week.[3] Toynbee’s issue with the advertisement was not whether Turnbull could differentiate between organic and non-organic causes of deafness—a claim that Toynbee doubted merited any truth—but rather, on Turnbull’s public declaration of his expertise through advertisement. “[H]e sends his advertisement to the public papers,” Toynbee wrote, “for an enormous payment gets it inserted as a paragraph…[and] by the aid of the circulation of this puff…deaf people consult Dr. Turnbull; he makes his application, and takes his fee.”[4] Toynbee insisted this was a disgraceful and underhanded maneuver directed towards drawing in patients, who were left vulnerable to potentially dangerous treatments: “Sir, almost every medical man must have heard of the most horrible effects sometimes produced by the application Dr. Turnbull uses…It must be apparent that Dr. Turnbull has no greater knowledge upon the diseases of the ear, than the ignorant whom I have before exposed by means of your pages.”[5]

Moreover, Toynbee argued if Turnbull was truly anxious with “relieving suffering humanity” as he professed in his advertisements, then why didn’t he “devote care, time, and trouble to the study of diseases of the ear? By this mean only can a man obtain information, and practising without that information must make a man appear, what he really is, a noxious hypocrite.”[6] By emphasizing a practitioner’s altruistic nature, advertisements proliferated by newspapers only disguised the skills of a practitioner, and in so doing, “tend to mislead and cheat the public;” thus,

as long as the public is as unwise as it now is, it is to be feared that there will be found Turnbulls, with applications; Cronins, Curtises, and hosts of others with ear drops; Blairs, with gout drops; Holloways, with double universal ointments; St. John Longs, with killing frictions; and all of them will gain their end by getting a living.[7]


[1] Alexander Turnbull, On the Medical Properties of the Natural Order Ranunculaceæ: and more particularly on the uses of sabadilla seeds, delphinium staphisagria, and aconitum napellus, and their alcaloids veratria, sabadilline, delphinia, and aconitine (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Greene, & Longman, 1835).

[2] Quoted in William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery and the Nature and Treatment of Diseases of the Ear (London: John Churchill, 1853), 44.

[3] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 112-113.

[4] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

[5] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

[6] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

[7] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

Latest Comments

  1. Moshe Pleshet says:

    Hi there Jaipreet,
    I got onto this blog while searching for the 1853 book: ‘Aural Surgery’ written by Sir William Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s father.
    According to a biography of Oscar Wilde I’m currently reading, the above book was a standard textbook on the subject in both England and Irland for many years but I cannot find a reference to it.
    Are you aware of this book?

    Moshe Pleshet


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