Alternative Medicines

For hundreds of years, medical quacks have offered what science could not—the promise of perfect health.

By Stassa Edwards

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Oil painting of a quack selling medicines, nineteenth century. Wellcome Library.

When Amy Huffman and Karl Milhon entered the clinic, they knew they were doing so under false pretenses. Milhon told the doctor, Hulda Regehr Clark, that he was a bisexual man whose former partner had recently been diagnosed with HIV—essentially, a death sentence in 1993. Huffman was there as his friend, to hold his hand and offer support as he received his diagnosis.

Milhon signed a form stating that he understood Clark was a naturopath, a practitioner of alternative medicine who used “vitamins, minerals, and herbs to change amino acids in the body,” as well as “orthomolecular nutritional therapy.” The pair was then seen by Clark, who used the prefix doctor even though she was not a licensed physician. She had, however, earned a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Minnesota, as well as a naturopathic degree from Dr. Clayton’s School of Natural Healing, a Birmingham, Alabama-based school of sorts that, for $695, granted naturopathic degrees after completion of a hundred-hour course. But, as Milhon and Huffman would soon find out, Clark’s naturopathic practices were anything but orthodox, let alone healing.

Rather than draw Milhon’s blood to determine whether or not he had HIV, Clark promised him a “one minute test” that was “all electronic.” Clark pulled out her signature “Syncrometer,” an electronic device of her own invention meant to measure the presence of a virus within a body. Huffman later described the Syncrometer as a flat box with “Vi-Tel 618” written on top in big orange letters. Powered by a car battery, the box had a gold wand attached to it. Clark scanned Milhon’s body with the wand, waved it over his wrists, and informed the patient he did indeed have HIV, but luckily he was cancer free.

Clark assured her newly diagnosed patient that there was nothing to worry about. “We’ll have you cleared up in less than two weeks,” she said.

“You mean you can cure it?” Milhon asked.

“Yes, I can kill the virus in three minutes,” Clark replied with unwavering confidence. Milhon may have been excited by the naturopath’s promises. To be promised a cure—let alone a near-instantaneous one with no pain or suffering—seemed like a miracle. Clark handed Milhon a prescription for an antigen blood test and told him to drive to nearby Indianapolis and return with the results. Milhon and Huffman did as Clark instructed.

What Clark didn’t know was that Milhon did not have HIV, he was not a bisexual man, nor was he even friends with Amy Huffman. Rather, he was an investigator in the Indiana Department of Health. Huffman was the Brown County deputy attorney general. By the time Milhon and Huffman returned to Clark’s office, someone had tipped her off, and she softened her original bold claims and kindly escorted the pair out of her office.

Before Milhon and Huffman could have an arrest warrant issued, Clark skipped town and fled to California. It wouldn’t be the first time she would escape prosecution. After the state of Indiana tracked her down in California and the Federal Trade Commission opened two separate investigations, Clark and her Century Nutrition Clinic permanently relocated to Tijuana. Across the border, Clark continued to offer false cures and expanded her practice to include a “New 21 Day Program for Advanced Cancers,” all for the low price of $1,732.75. A cancer or AIDS patient simply had to be diagnosed with the miraculous Syncrometer, relocate to Mexico, and live in a Clark-owned dormitory.

Clark was, by nearly any definition, a quack doctor. She maintained that bodily illnesses were caused by parasitic infection, and that the invisible parasites could be easily killed by “zapping” with electrical devices. The zapping devices were, of course, Clark’s “inventions,” available only through Century Nutrition Clinic.

She was also a best-selling author. Her 1993 book, The Cure for All Cancers, is currently in its seventh edition. Written in pared-down, accessible language, the book is strangely compelling. It appeals to a basic human longing: a healthy body free of virus, disease, and infection. A body that neither withers nor dies, nor fails, nor weakens.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity that has kept The Cure for All Cancers in print for more than twenty years. The book fluctuates between sympathy for the simple ignorance of an established medical community and material distrust of an often opaque group of experts who, simply put, profit from illness. Her book is a “a gift to humanity.” Clark begs those in the medical community “not to suppress this information but to disperse it, regardless of embarrassment or liability for the simplicity and newness of the cure, provided only that it meets your standard of truth.”


Alternative medicine is a particularly modern phenomenon. For medicine to be alternative, there first had to be mainstream medicine. The eighteenth century was the Golden Age of medical quackery—as well as a period of increasing medical authority. The Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh was the premier university for medicine during this time, with ready access to the bodies of executed criminals for the study of anatomy. But the same century that saw the introduction of a smallpox vaccination and the invention of the stethoscope also experienced the rise of Anton Mesmer’s animal magnetism and Franz Joseph Gall’s pseudoscientific phrenology.

Wood engraving of mesmerism in practice, c. 1845. Wellcome Library

Now well-educated, doctors would continue to fail at what they have always failed at—preventing the universality of death. This inability to produce universal cures, despite ever-increasing knowledge of human bodies, left patients dissatisfied. The heroics of men of science don’t look very gallant to those dying in a dingy hospital room.

It was easy then to mobilize against the newly professional doctors with their exclusive language and opaque expertise in favor of alternative solutions. By the nineteenth century, alternative medicine flourished, including under its large umbrella everything from miracle potions and pills to vegetarianism. Its practitioners had drawn a proverbial battle line: on one side, the unnatural suffering by patients at the hands of doctors, on the other, disease prevention found in the reunification of the body in its natural state. The allure of a perfectly formed body, fearfully and wonderfully made in the eyes of Mother Nature, is perhaps one of the most primordial fantasies of humans.

Nineteenth-century naturopaths extolled the body’s innate recuperative powers. Most famous among them was Samuel Thomson, a self-taught New Hampshire practitioner whose skills with herbal remedies were famed throughout America in the 1820s. The founder of Thomsonian medicine, one of the earliest systematic alternative medical theories, Thomson denounced modern medicine as a “deadly poison,” adding that if “people were to know what is offered them of this kind, they would absolutely refuse to ever receive it as medicine.” Instead of counseling patients to “cram a secret medicine or poison down his throat,” Thomson offered the bounty of “medicines that grow in our own country, which the God of nature has prepared for the benefit of mankind.” 

Thomson’s claims of home-grown bounty must have seemed miraculous, but his tinges of nationalism and emphasis on plain language surely appealed to Jacksonian America. Alternative medicine has, from its inception, had strong political overtones; what’s more political, after all, than the human body? But more compelling must have been his method’s complete return to vis mediactrix naturae—the healing power of nature—a Latin phrase coined by Hippocrates. The Hippocratic concept signified the body’s inborn ability to respond to illness and to restore itself without dramatic intervention. By the time Thomson found fame and fortune as a naturopath, vis mediactrix naturae was, for professional doctors, an outmoded concept that they nodded at only with respect to their own origins.

For much of the nineteenth century, Thomsonian medicine remained incredibly popular. Its patients sought relief in cayenne pepper, lobelia, and steam baths. Mother Nature’s restorative power, coupled with the body’s innate ability to heal itself, must have seemed like an Arcadian vision to patients hoping to avoid the often-toxic mercury compounds prescribed by physicians.

The problem with Thomson’s system was the same as any practitioner—it wasn’t nearly as fool-proof as he promised. Thomson was accused of malpractice after at least two of his patients died under his care. Perhaps if Thomson hadn’t promised everlasting life—a system “universally applicable in all cases of disease”—a body count of two would have gone unnoticed in the 1820s. But it was Thomson’s response to his detractors—and to those families who sought some kind of justice after the deaths of their loved ones—that marked him for scandal. He saw the outrage as a personal affront, an attempt to denounce both his work and his reputation. He dug in his heels, insisting his alternative was healthier, claiming his detractors were persecuting his “salutary and efficacious” system. Thomson’s response became a kind of template for alternative practitioners for years to come, a familiar drama in which the quack presents their medicines as better than orthodox physicians, overstates the healing powers of their treatment, promises life and health and, when accused as quack, goes on the attack.


Even after her flight from Indiana to California to Mexico, Clark fired back at critics. These shots were so loud that in 2000, the founder of Quackwatch, a website that exposes health fraud, filed a lawsuit against her for libel. Clark had called the founder a Nazi—it was probably the kindest of the insults she hurled his way—and encouraged her followers to actively discredit his work. Though Clark died in 2009, her zappers are still widely available on the Internet, and her books continued to be highly rated.

Clark is, of course, an extreme example—more accepted naturopathic practitioners, like Andrew Weil, have publicly denounced her work. But the line between healers like Weil and Clark is as distinct as it is vague. Like Samuel Thompson, many alternative practitioners offer knowledge about herbal remedies and dietary practices. Following the plant-based diet of Dean Ornish, or avoiding genetically modified foods on the dubious advice of Dr. Oz, is unlikely to have a deleterious effect on your health. But ultimately these doctors promote lifestyles based on a perception of health rather than on evidence-based medicine. Weil’s dietary and vitamin supplements might make you feel better, but they’re likely doing very little to improve your health.

In 2007, a survey for the U.S Department of Heath and Human Services reported that more than a third of adult Americans had in that year used at least one alternative therapy, and that 83 million U.S. adults spent $33.9 billion on out-of-pocket costs for alternative medicines. With the growth of cancer morbidity and diseases like autism, alternative medicines will continue to hawk magical cures to deadly and debilitating diseases. As long as health fails and bodies decay, as long as we are relentlessly faced with our own mortality—the quack will endure.