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Editorials Christmas 2009: Years Like This

Secret remedies: 100 years on

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 15 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5432
  1. David Colquhoun, research professor
  1. 1Department of Pharmacology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT
  1. d.colquhoun{at}

    Time to look again at the efficacy of remedies

    In the linked feature (doi:10.1136/bmj.b5415), Jeffrey Aronson describes how the BMA, BMJ, and politicians tried a century ago to end the marketing of secret remedies.1 They didn’t have much success. Forty years after their endeavours, A J Clark (professor of pharmacology at University College London and later at Edinburgh) could still write, “the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”2 Clark himself was sued by a peddler of a quack cure for tuberculosis for writing that: “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer, and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous.” Although he fought the libel case, impending destitution eventually forced him to apologise.3

    Clark’s claim in 1927 that: “some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation”4 is even truer today. Homoeopaths regularly talk nonsense about quantum theory, and “nutritional therapists” claim to cure AIDS with vitamin pills. Some of their writing is plain delusional, but much is a parody of scientific writing, in a …

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