Quacks in Wagons

When the American Revolutionary War ended, Canada benefited from an influx of 30,000 United Empire Loyalists.  They changed the entire complexion of the British North American colonies, especially Upper Canada.

The newcomers faced severe problems.  They also created problems for the communities in which they settled.  A rapidly increasing population made it necessary to provide streets, schools and other public services.

There was a great shortage of doctors.  As late as 1815, there were only forty qualified medical men in Upper Canada!  The result was that there were a great many hucksters touring the countryside, selling “wonder medicines” from wagons.  They were colourful and entertaining, but their drugs were often little more than coloured water, with perhaps some unpleasant flavouring to make them seem effective.

Sometimes the hucksters would bring an entertainment troupe with them and put on shows.  During each performance, there was a  pause while the huckster extolled the virtues of his medicines.  Sales were good, but the few medical men were furious!

In 1838, an editorial in the Toronto Patriot said: “Quacks are an intolerable nuisance in any city where empiricism and radicalism go hand in hand.  It is a monstrous grievance that our government should allow the province to swarm with these pestilent vagabonds, every one of whom is a Yankee loafer.”

Attempts had been made to regulate the practice of medicine.  Dr. John Rolph English: College of Physicians and Surgeons of...

tried to form a medical school in Toronto in 1824, but became involved in politics.  After taking part in the Rebellion of 1837, he had to flee to the United States.  he was pardoned in 1843 and returned to Toronto, where he resumed his school.  It became part of the University of Toronto, where he resumed his school.  It became part of the University of Toronto in 1887.

The outcry against “quacks” became so great that the legislature passed an act in 1939 incorporating the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Upper Canada.  It examined candidates for licenses to practise medicine in the province.  In this way the situation was gradually brought under control.  On August 15, 1866, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons received  a charter at Kingston, Ontario.

You can learn more at Queen’s University‘s website..


    • Seems to me I read fairly recently about some guy who made up stuff with household ingredients and said it cure so many things … I can’t remember the details now. Anyway, I guess people are still tryinjg to do it this way today!! LOL 🙂


  1. I’ve always associated ‘snake oil salesmen’ with America’s wild west – had no idea the practice showed up in Canada, carried by an influx of ‘American Loyalists’!

    Strong evidence of a *very* early theme in US social/economic culture that remains to this day — “there must be a way to make some money by convincing someone to buy this stuff.” Hmm …

    Neat post – thanks!


    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Come to my mind reading your comment: Are you familiar with “Buckley’s” cough syrup? Absolutely the worst taste in the entire world, but one gulp, coughing is stopped in it’s track — you just need the courage to take it! 🙂


      • I’d forgotten! “It tastes awful – but it works”. And boosted sales! I do remember being entertained at the ad, but never did try it. We could purchase an effective behind the counter generic cough syrup (codeine) by requesting it and I used to buy a small bottle of that about 1x/yr.

        Just ran a browser search for ‘advertisement for Buckley’s cough syrup’ and checked out Buckleys.ca. ‘about/history’ page and also a post at ‘failuremag.com’ (failuremag.com/feature/article/buckleys_mixture/). Both of interest. Comments at the failure mag post (which hardly describes an advertising failure!) has reader laments of not being able to get the cough syrup anymore?

        While doing all that I came across reference to Buckley’s White Rub and suspected I’ve still got some. Just checked – yep, a small jar about 3/4 full which smells quite a lot like Vick’s Vapor Rub but a bit more mild, a bit more pleasant? (The jar’s also probably at least 20 years old, don’t know if it’s mellowed with age.)

        Before I moved, a friend gave me a full small brown bottle of “Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, (Northrop McGillvray Ltd), “also known as Canadian Healing Oil” in many parts of the world it says on the bottle. Good as a topical for everything from insect bites to chest colds to arthritis – and smells like it. I’ve never tried it. Have no idea how old the bottle is – either ‘made to look old’ and is a relatively modern product, or spent years in someone’s medicine cabinet? Haven’t tried to look it up but now I’m interested! 🙂


        • I’m interested too! I’ll check some of these out. I’m pretty sure I saw Buckley’s just a few months ago, at my local PharmaPlus, but I’ll check it again next time I’m out there.
          Wow, this Dr. Thomas Eclectic Oil sounds great — even if just for the “old” look bottel! LOL
          Thanks! Have a great day! 🙂


          • Enjoy the chase!

            btw – it’s ElectRic Oil, .. just checked again, although on net I think the ‘r’ is often left out. I like messing about with spelling etc to shift meaning of word. (Am an e.e. cummings fan). I think the ‘r’ in Electric is a pretty neat touch – suggests a very special quality in the product? I checked a bit, original maker/marketer was in Toronto I believe. Product was sold at least a few years after WW2; bottles, labels, advertisements went through a few changes along the way. I think my bottle must be from near end of the product being available.


          • 🙂 (Just getting around to checking in at my blog … and even at that, on ‘borrowed time’. But I so enjoyed the period when I was keeping track of your offerings and hope to resume soon!) 🙂


  2. Of course my mind immediately latched on to the word “quacks” and I began thinking of quacking ducks in wagons. But then I read the post. Ah yes, the patent medicine scams back in the day. Sad.


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