Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History by S. D. Tucker

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: The Quack Discipline of ‘Zone Therapy’

In an extract from his new book Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, out now in paperback, SD Tucker examines the bizarre ‘medical’ advice that combing your hands and squeezing your fingers can cure all ailments known to man.

Albert Ankers's 1879 painting Der Quacksalber illustrated perfectly the origins of the word 'Quack'; namely, an old Dutch term for someone hawking dubious medicines. (Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, Amberley Publishing)

One of the most comical pseudo-medical fads of all time was something called either ‘Zone Therapy’ or ‘Zonotherapy’, depending on how fancy your local quack wished to sound. This involved splitting the body up into ten different vertical zones, and claiming that symptoms in one area of the body could be diagnosed and then resolved by applying pressure to other, corresponding, zones, as everything was connected beneath the skin by nerves. Most of these nerve-networks seemed to terminate in one or other of the fingers or toes.

This was curious, as anatomists had never managed to actually see these particular nerve-networks before, when cutting up human bodies for analysis. The Zone Therapists conveniently replied that this was because they were invisible.

Invented around 1909 by Dr William H. Fitzgerald (1872–1942), the chief physician and senior ear, nose and throat surgeon at St Francis Hospital in Connecticut, the fake discipline first came to the attention of the wider world thanks to an article written for Everybody’s Magazine in 1915 entitled ‘To Stop That Toothache, Squeeze Your Toe!’ by the man who would become Fitzgerald’s long-time partner in such nonsense, Dr Edwin F. Bowers (b.1871).

Unfortunately, whilst Dr Fitzgerald was a real, genuine surgeon, well-educated and well-travelled and with medical certificates spilling out of his ears, nose and throat, ‘Dr’ Bowers was not. An investigation carried out into Bowers by American medical authorities in 1929 revealed that the man had not so much as attended medical college for even a single day’s worth of instruction.

Simply gripping a comb tightly in your hand in the fashion illustrated above would be enough to ensure an entirely painless childbirth for any woman. (William H. Fitzgerald & Edwin F. Bowers, Zone Therapy; Or, Relieving Pain At Home, Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, Amberley Publishing)

There’s One Born Every Minute

Having established himself as Zonotherapy’s chief propagandist, Bowers set to work collaborating on a book with Dr Fitzgerald, 1917’s Zone Therapy: Or, Relieving Pain at Home, whose introduction jauntily promised it would advance medical knowledge far beyond geneticists’ recent discovery of ‘the evil possibilities in marrying one’s cousin’. The basic idea was that, when your eyes were hurting, say, you would look up in a Zonotherapy book which other part of your body secretly corresponded to these organs, and then apply pressure to this area to put a stop to the pain.

In this case, the nerves within the first and second fingers of the human hand corresponded to the eyes, so the best remedy was to tie elastic bands around them, or encircle them tightly with little wire-springs until they turned blue. If neither of these items were to hand, you could always try attaching clothes-pegs to them instead – this is not a joke, this was Bowers and Fitzgerald’s actual advice, and they provided S&M-style photographs of people transformed into human washing-lines to prove it.

The book was marketed primarily as a practical means for dispelling pain when it erupted around the home, away from your doctor with his reassuring stores of opium – even if the pain arose from as serious a thing as childbirth. In order to achieve a painless birth, all the expectant Zonotherapy-loving mother had to do was sit there with a metal comb in each hand, gripping onto them and thereby numbing her nerves whilst she pushed away merrily.

Doing this, said the authors, would result in a new mother laughing and joking her way through the complete non-trauma of pushing a live infant out through her genitals. One new mother told her Zonotherapist that ‘she did not experience any pain whatever’ using this method, and ‘could not believe the child was born’. ‘This is not so bad,’ she laughed happily, no doubt wanting to drop out another immediately, just for fun.

Fitzgerald claimed to have performed several successful minor operations without anaesthetic, rendering the whole procedure painless simply by applying constant pressure to his patients’ fingers prior to applying the knife, a discovery he initially termed ‘Pressure Anaesthesia’. Sceptics were invited to let practitioners squeeze the nerves in their hands, then close their eyes and see if they could feel it when pins were jabbed into their flesh.

Apparently, they said they couldn’t; one daring fellow kept his lids open and let his Zonotherapist attach a hook into his eyeball without feeling so much as a scratch. The keen quack then ‘put several pins into his face’ before calling the man’s wife into the room to show her what he had done. The wife did not seem pleased.

About as Much Use as a Comb to a Bald Man

Deafness, meanwhile, could be treated by clamping a clothes-peg around your third toe or poking at your teeth with a cotton-bud, thus enabling you to hear nearby people laughing at you. You could also try combing deaf people’s hands, or solve an earache by fastening a clothes-peg ‘for five minutes or thereabouts’ on the tip of your ring-finger.

Headaches were dispelled by sucking your thumb and pressing it hard into the roof of your mouth, thus allowing you to ‘push the headache out through the top of the head’. Alternatively, you could ‘attack’ your migraine by shoving your fingers up your nose. If your friends’ heads felt all fuzzy, you could even invade their nasal orifices for them, although it was wise to inform them of your intentions first.

If you were going bald, meanwhile, you had to sit there ‘rubbing the fingernails of both hands briskly one against the other in a lateral motion for three or four minutes at a time, at intervals throughout the day’ until your hair re-sprouted, thus making you glad you had already invested in a metal comb for your pregnant wife upon the Zonotherapists’ wise advice.

Those disposed to stomach-ache were advised to ‘arm yourself with a wire-hair brush and a metal comb’ every time they boarded public transport. Then, rather than vomiting over their fellow passengers, they could simply ‘get busy with the comb and brush – not on your head – but on your hands’, thus dispelling travel-sickness, indigestion and ‘distension from gas’. The sight of you obsessively combing your bare hands until you farted might still make people want to sit far away from you, however, in which case it was recommended, for no apparent reason, that you just eat some salted popcorn instead.

If your baby had a tummy-ache, you could pursue similar methods. Rather than beating your crying infant ‘up and down the room’ with your slippers until it either shuts up or dies, why not just comb the baby until it goes peacefully to sleep?

Submitting to Zone Therapy treatment may have cured your pain, but it could severely injure your dignity. (William H. Fitzgerald & Edwin F. Bowers, Zone Therapy; Or, Relieving Pain At Home, Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, Amberley Publishing)

Dentally Disturbed

Even sharp needles could be banished from dentistry via sensible use of Zone Therapy. Instead of having cocaine injected into your mouth to numb the pain, it was much simpler to just sit there with elastic bands wrapped around your fingers. As the fingers and teeth were intimately connected, this meant you would surely feel no pain whilst lying back and relaxing within the dentist’s chair. However, because for some unknown reason (presumably related to the differing level of quasi-hypnotic suggestibility of individual patients) Zonotherapy only worked for 65 per cent of the time, the authors of Zone Therapy were careful to advise that, sometimes, the numbing needle did work best after all.

Not only pain, but actual disease, could be cured by the Zonotherapists, or so they said. Whooping cough was banished simply by pressing a hidden bodily button located somewhere at the back of the throat. Cancer, appendicitis, goitre, even polio, all could be beaten off, at least temporarily, with naught but clothes-pegs and combs. One woman given Fitzgerald’s treatment went so far as to simply wee a bothersome tumour out from between her legs one day, causing it to make ‘a happy exit’ down the drain.

There was no end to the wonders Zone Therapy could perform. Attending a dinner-party one evening, Dr Fitzgerald met a female opera-singer who complained that her voice was in terminal decline. Eager to help, the surgeon asked if he could fondle her feet in front of the other guests. As he did so, Fitzgerald discovered a calloused area on the big toe of her right foot. He squeezed it for a bit, then told her to sing. Amazingly, ‘Not only was she able to exactly reach the notes she had been missing, but she was able to reach two notes higher than she had ever done before.’ Dr Fitzgerald must have had a grip like a vice! If only his brain had been in such good working order too …

S. D. Tucker's new book Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History is available for purchase now.