Idaho History

Idaho’s real doctors called out quacks just before 1900

The year 1893 was an important one in the history of Idaho medicine. The Idaho Statesman wrote on Aug. 31 that year: “The Doctors to Meet. Idaho State Medical Society to be Organized. A Crusade Against Quacks.”

The article that followed quoted the Pacific Medical Journal: “Idaho has long been pointed to as being the only state or territory in the Union in which a state medical organization could not be found. It could become a dumping ground for the poorly educated and the rejected applicants of other state examining boards.”

Doctors from across the state gathered in the council chambers of Boise’s new castle-like City Hall on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 1893. The code of ethics of the American Medical Association was adopted and it was determined that only reputable graduates of recognized medical colleges were eligible for membership in the new society. Officers were elected: president, W.W. Watkins, Moscow; vice president, I.H. Moore, Pocatello; secretary, C.L. Sweet, Boise; censors, E.L. Perrault, Boise; C.W. Shaff, Lewiston; and N.J. Brown, Hailey. The Statesman said, “The Society starts off well and next year will show a membership of nearly a hundred.”

The “crusade against quacks,” announced as one of the objectives of the new society, included all forms of quackery, defined there as “the promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices by persons pretending to have education and skills they do not have.” Quackery included conspicuous advertising in the Statesman and other Idaho newspapers for patent medicines that claimed to cure just about every kind of ailment or complaint.

Two ads that appeared in the Statesman in January 1893 are typical. Each is illustrated with drawings of men before and after taking the medicine. “LOST MANHOOD” is the boldface headline for a product called “Nervia,” guaranteed to cure “any form of nervous prostration or any disorder of the genital organs of either sex, caused by excessive use of tobacco, alcohol or opium or on account of youthful indiscretions or overindulgence etc. dizziness, convulsions, wakefulness, headache, mental depression, softening of the brain, weak memory, bearing down pains, seminal weakness, hysteria, nocturnal emissions, spermatorrhoea (thus), loss of power and impotency, which if neglected may lead to premature old age and insanity. Positively guaranteed.”

H.E. Myers & Co, of Boise, signed the ad for this cure-all. Boise druggist W.S. Whitehead advertised a similar product that month with similar outrageous claims. It was called “Aphroditine, The Celebrated French Cure,” and offered a written guarantee and refund of your $5 if a permanent cure was not achieved.

Boise City and most other Idaho towns were blessed with the competent, well-trained medical doctors who had formed the Idaho State Medical Society to get rid of quackery, and this included patent medicines, sometimes called what they really were: “quack medicines.” Few of them were legally patented, but most were trademarked, and virtually all of them were laced with enough alcohol, and even morphine, opium or cocaine, to cause their users to become addicted.

Other medical news appeared regularly in Statesman pages in 1893, including interesting or unusual cases and operations performed by local doctors George Collister, C.L. Sweet, William Stephenson, E.L. Perrault and W.D. Springer.

Dr. H.P. Ustick, for whom the road is named, was an 1883 graduate of Hahnemann College in Philadelphia. Alone among Boise doctors in 1893, he advertised aggressively in the Idaho Statesman, claiming that he could cure all diseases of men, all female complaints, “treat diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat; fitting glasses and artificial eyes, operates for cross-eyes, cataract, etc.” He promised “Cures Guaranteed in Every Case Taken.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email