Supplements that aren’t what they claim. Fad diets that zoom past faster than you can say “green juice.” Bloggers who pass themselves off as medical experts. America’s current health trends might sound familiar to Erika Janik and Matthew B. Jensen. They documented the rise and scandalous fall of the Reinhardts, who were once Wisconsin’s first family of patent medicine.

During the 19th century, write Janik and Jensen, quack “doctors” outnumbered legit ones three to one. A growing interest in science and a booming open market proved irresistible to businesspeople who rushed to bring products with dubious medical claims to health-starved consumers. Among these were Wallace and Willis Reinhardt, twin brothers who helmed a kind of fraudulent dynasty in the Midwest.

After being run out of Minnesota for fear of a grand jury investigation of their faux medical institute, the brothers set up shop in Milwaukee. Under the guise of the “Wisconsin Medical Institute,” they took advantage of ailing patients, diagnosing “sexual ailments” and pushing pricey treatments on their victims. Those who were unable to travel to their office could experience the Reinhardt’s “cures” from afar thanks to mail-order books, devices and medicines.

The rise of the Reinhardts coincided with the professionalization of medicine in the United States. Incensed by the faux practitioners who sullied their names, doctors organized into the American Medical Association in 1847 and participated in a state medical board in Wisconsin; however, lax licensing laws in the state prompted Wisconsin to become “a dumping ground for doctors unqualified to practice medicine anywhere else.” In their quest for legitimacy, the Reinhardts even formed their own lobby against the state’s Board of Medical Examiners.

But that audacity would prove to be the brothers’ ruin. Despite their financial power and newspaper advertisements, the Reinhardts were investigated by the State Attorney General and arrested. Though they had an informant inside the Board of Medical Examiners and avoided extradition from Minnesota, where they fled after they were charged with pretending to be doctors, they eventually settled with the state of Wisconsin and could never participate in medicine in the state again. Their brazen actions caused a crackdown on ads for patent medicines, and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act further decimated the patent medicine and quack industry across the country.

Janik and Jensen conclude that, despite their brazen actions, the Reinhardt brothers were ultimately giving people in search of better health exactly what they wanted. “Quackery remains alive and well today,” they warn, “because the same fears and insecurities that drove people to the Reinhardts more than one hundred years ago are still with us.” Today’s quacks may be peddling supplements, Instagram photos, or dramatic success stories, but until human psychology changes, they’re more likely to shift shapes than to ever disappear.

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The Wisconsin Magazine of History , Vol. 94, No. 4 (SUMMER 2011), pp. 28-41
Wisconsin Historical Society