Saturday, 9 November 2013

Of Quacks and Caustics: When Evidence Didn't Matter?



In 1694, surgeon William Cowper and other members of the Royal Society gathered to test a Vulnerary Powder peddled by an apothecary named John Colbatch.  The powder, Colbatch argued, was a styptic that staunched the flow of blood and allowed wounds to heal much faster.  Given the growing importance of military action in the period i.e. Third Anglo-Dutch war (1672-1674) & the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), a medicine that could help out on the battlefield would be invaluable.

William Cowper and his hair.
 In keeping with the Scientific Revolution’s emphasis on empirical knowledge, Colbatch claimed that he did numerous animal experiments that proved his powder’s efficacy:

“I began to make Experiments upon Dogs and other Animals, Wounding them in the most desperate manner I could contrive; and in about a Hundred Experiments that I made, I had not above five that miscarried.”[1]

London surgeons felt this too good to be true and responded with everything from polite disbelief to outright scorn.  Did Colbatch, a mere apothecary, stumble upon a revolutionary new method of treating wounds?  Or was he yet another quack on the London landscape?  

Cowper, a noted surgeon and anatomist, decided to replicate Colbatch’s experiments to test the powder himself.  In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he noted:

“THE Report of Wonderful Cures wrought by Mr. Colbatch's Styptick Pouder, so entertained the Expectations of divers Persons, that amongst others I thought my self obliged to obtain some convincing Proofs of its Operations.”[2]

To begin, Cowper experimented on two dogs, applying Colbatch’s Vulnerary Powder to their wounds.  In both cases, the dogs recovered suitably and Cowper and his colleagues were excited, their hopes raised that Colbatch had, indeed, developed a powder that could help save lives.

Keeping in mind the successful animal experiments, Cowper and his colleagues made their way to London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and applied the powder to the stump of a man who had his arm amputated above the elbow and to the stump of a young teenage boy who had his leg amputated below the knee. 

In both cases, Colbatch’s powder proved ineffective:

“Some hours after these Operations, both these Patients suffered extravagant Pains: Three days after, the Applications were taken off, and had any Person, a stranger to what had been done, seen the Stumps, he would have supposed nothing less than an actual Cautery had been applyed, or could have occasioned such large Escars, and so horrid an Appearance; which did sufficiently denote this Vulnerary Pouder (as it's called in a late Publick Paper) to be a violent Caustick. The Pouder was applyed with all imaginable fairness, and in the Presence of the Inventer, who I think has no Reason to imagine those Surgeons who made use of it in the Hospital, had any Design to prevent its Success, since it's well known They were rather Prejudiced in its Favour, than on the contrary.”[3]

Disappointed, Cowper prepared his report on the unsuccessful experiment and sent it off to the Royal Society.

Colbatch was furious and decried Cowper’s assessment.  Not only was his powder successful, but it was a painless application!  Any disagreement was chalked up to malice and jealousy.[4] 

Indeed, as he wrote later, the experiment’s outcome was fabricated!  Writing in 1699, Colbatch claimed that while others had said that the two patients suffered and had continued bleeding, that he had seen no such thing.  Rather, upon visiting the patients the day after, they related that they were well!

“Before I was capable of speaking to him, he rose up in his Bed, and prayed most heartily for me, telling me he believed no man, that ever had an Arm cut off, was so well as he.”[5]

A London surgeon, known only as W.W, wrote in response to Colbatch’s treatise and lambasted him as a quack.  With regard to the dogs Colbatch experimented on he wrote, “I am fully satisfied they all died save, one, who had his Leg cut off.”[6]

W.W. continued to list Colbatch’s cases, analyzing the treatments, commenting upon the patients which he had seen, and noting either Colbatch’s errors or lies.  And last, to prove that the powder really was caustic, W.W. had it tested only to discover that it “consists of a Vitriol of Copper” and some “Sugar of Lead.”[7]

He concluded: “I suppose the best Way of applying of it will easily appear to be to throw it into some nasty Puddle of Water; which by its Filth, is excused from the use of Man and Beast.”[8]

Colbatch had numerous surgeons and physicians against him.  Repeated experiments and publications questioned his medical theories and cures.  W.W. went so far as to analyze and critique almost every cure Colbatch wrote about. 

Yet, none of this could ruin Colbatch’s reputation once and for all because the most important  people – the patients – were either not listening, not caring, or not believing.

Colbatch may have been blacklisted by many a medical practitioner, but the upstart apothecary from Worcestershire died Sir John Colbatch, wealthy physician.

What do you think?: Was Colbatch a visionary well-rewarded or a quack who got lucky?  Let me know in the comments and on twitter @medhistorian


[1] John Colbatch, Novem Lumen Chirurgicum, London: printed for D. Brown (1695), “To the Reader.”
[2] William Cowper, “An Account of some EXPERIMENTS lately made on Dogs,” Phil Trans.  Feb. 1694.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Colbatch, Novum Lumen, “To the Reader.”
[5] Colbatch, A Collection of Tracts, London: printed for Dan. Brown (1699), 70-71.
[6] W.W. Novum Lumen Chirurgicum Extinctum, London: printed by Andrew Bell (1695), v.
[7] Ibid., 61.
[8] Ibid., 63.

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