That Americans can take medications today with reasonable assurance they are not dangerous to health and may have the healing effect desired is thanks, in an indirect way, to “Professor” William C. Wilson, Kansas City’s king of quacks. Wilson’s claims for the power of his medical devices, along with his truculent attacks on established medicine – “your regularly qualified murderer,” he called the family doctor – drew the hostile attention of the orthodox medical establishment, and led to calls for legislation against quackery.
Quack cures for everything from catarrh to cancer abounded in 1893 Kansas City. The cures often involved real or pretended application of electricity in some form. Professor Wilson called his company, located at 1021 Main (later, Walnut St.), the “New York and London Electric Association,” though it had no connection with either city, or with electricity.
He peddled his “cures” in newspapers across the country and even in Canada and England. Wilson’s loquacious ads challenged medical practitioners to refute his “charge of murder against nine-tenths of our so-called best physicians,” and claimed that he had cured “95 per cent of all that come to me, after the regular doctors give them over to die; that I make the blind see, the deaf hear, and cure without the curse of drugs….”
The best known product of Wilson’s Electric Association was the Actina, a metal cylinder about three inches long with screw-off caps at each end. Inside was a piece of perforated metal with packing wrapped around it, saturated with oils of mustard and sassafras, belladonna extract, ether, and amyl nitrate.
Wilson’s ads made fabulous claims for the powers of the Actina, “the great restorer and catarrh cure… a marvelous invention which is mystifying the oculists, opticians and physicians of America and Europe,” and “a perfect electric pocket battery, usable at all times and in all places by young or old,” although it had no electrical properties.
Among ailments the Actina promised to cure were blindness, deafness, catarrh, hay fever, neuralgic headaches, myopia, loss of voice, asthma, sore throat, colds, and bronchitis, “all without medicine or operations of any kind.” The user had only to remove one or other of the caps, depending on the affliction, and relief would be had.
Not mentioned in the ads is that the Actina arrived by mail with instructions to return the cylinder to Kansas City for “recharging” every four months at a cost of $1.00, adding $3.00 a year to the $10.00 price. ““Do not allow any one under any circumstances to recharge your Actina,” cautioned a package insert: “Our formula is a secret..."
The Professor’s Association also sold “magneto-conservative garments,” said to “positively cure all forms of diseases in both sexes without the use of drugs,” an “Electro-Magnetic Hair Brush” to relieve headaches, and “Magneto-Conservative Office and Sleeping Caps” for paralysis.
It was the Actina, however, which drew the attention of the American Academy of Opthamology when it held its first meeting in Kansas City in 1896. Wilson’s claims about the ability of the device to prevent and cure blindness precipitated demand for legislation, leading to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, forerunner to the Food and Drug Administration.
In the meantime, the Professor and his associates continued merrily to pedal their wares, not being driven from business until 1915 as the result of a federal investigation which concluded that the Actina was “absolutely worthless” and might even work “an incalculable degree of harm” to the eyes from the irritating effect of fumes.
A federal judge ruled that the company, renamed the Actina Appliance Company, was a “scheme for obtaining money through the mails by means of fraud and fraudulent pretenses….” and effectively put it out of business by denying it use of the mails (A.J. Cramp, ed. Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery and Allied Matters Affecting the Public Health. Vol. 2. American Medical Association: 1921, p. 111).
In 1916 the president of the company, John R. Foran, admitted he had no medical education or training and knew nothing about the properties of the compounds in the Actina. This had not prevented him from calling himself “Dr. Foran” and giving fraudulent “medical advice” to potential customers.
February 13, 2012