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date: 28 June 2017

Charlatans and Medicine in 19th-Century Latin America

Summary and Keywords

In the long view of history, the charlatan is a merchant in unconventional knowledge defined on the basis of his itinerant existence. Traveling from one marketplace to another, dealing in exotic objects and remedies, organizing shows and exhibitions, performing miraculous healings by appealing to the curative power of words and liniments, charlatans have traversed Europe since early modern times.

Charlatans also crossed the boundaries between popular and learned cultures. Both celebrated and opposed by physicians, scientists and philosophers, the rich and the poor, women and men, they circulated and traded knowledge and artifacts, penetrating the most diverse cultural spheres. Far from being confined to certain countries or regions, they were everywhere, repeating almost the same sales strategies, words, and performances. The repetition of fictitious stories down the centuries and on different continents raises the question of assessing the persistence of tradition in such different contexts.

Charlatans were able not only to discover what local people liked but also to speak their “local language,” as well as adopting the most sophisticated technological innovations as part of their performances. They were sharp observers of traditions and habits in the settings they visited, and they reacted quickly to what was new for attracting audiences and customers. One can say that charlatans combined very ancient products with the most innovative media.

Keywords: traveling healers, quackery, empirics, secret remedies, popular museums, marketplace medicine, natural history, regulation of the medical professions

Empirics, Traveling Doctors, and Vendors of Miracles

Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) starts by presenting Melquíades, a traveling gypsy, who introduces knowledge to the isolated town of Macondo by means of his inventions, through stories of his adventures, and by dealing in the most fabulous objects—flying carpets, magnets, daguerreotypes, ice, telescopes—obtained far away and long ago. Melquíades is not alone in García Márquez’s universe: in The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1972), the traveling vendors of miracles, Blacamán the Good and Blacamán the Bad, incarnate the quintessential charlatan, a word rarely used in García Márquez’s novels. Experts in the art of healing, they sell tonics and perform minor surgery without pain, swelling, or excessive bleeding. In their public performances, these fabulous doctors dressed as “bullring mules,” using gold, rings with colored stones on every finger, and braids of jingle bells. Former embalmers of viceroys, fortunetellers, inventors of remedies, traders in herbs and charms, merchants of Indian artifacts and infallible antidotes for the bites of serpents, they travel back and forth beyond the limits of common people’s everyday life in pursuit of humanity’s welfare. Far away from civilization, in contact with pristine nature and “primitive” peoples, they are privy to the secrets of God and cures for human suffering.

As it is well known, One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Tale of Erendira are regarded as the purest examples of Latin American magical realism. However, the characters in these books—as well as Anacleto Morones, “the Holy Child” from Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain (1953)—are more real than magic, more universal than Latin American. They can be found in newspapers and trial records from both Europe and the Americas. Travelogues and archival sources testify to the plague of Blacamán-like charlatans, troupes of mountebanks that crisscrossed Europe since the 16th century and even earlier. Traveling from one marketplace to another, dealing in exotic objects and remedies, organizing shows and exhibitions, performing miraculous healings by appealing to the curative power of words and liniments, the traveling charlatan, far from fiction and magic realism and not at all an exclusively Latin American phenomenon, was a European historical character low in the hierarchy of medical practitioners, occupying a station close to barbers and bleeders. Parallel to these itinerant troupes, Europe also abounded in sedentary empirics, who shared with the itinerants a notable presence in the history of medical practice.

Charlatans and empirics crossed the boundaries between popular and learned cultures. Both celebrated and opposed by physicians, scientists and philosophers, the rich and the poor, women and men, they were merchants of knowledge and artifacts. They were everywhere, manifesting almost identical sales strategies, words, and performances. Tradition persists amid change and space. Or as Matthew Ramsey put it in the case of France, this apparently constant behavior happens in changing contexts, having distinct social significance.1 A typical charlatan from the last decades of 19th-century Latin America is—except for the use of the automobile—barely distinguishable from his American counterpart of 1920.

Charlatans were able not only to discover what local people liked but also to speak their local language, as well as adopting the most sophisticated technological innovations in their performances. They were sharp observers of local situations and established habits, on the one hand, and of what was new and could be used to attract audiences and customers, on the other hand. One can say that charlatans, such as the Romani that came to Macondo every year, combined very ancient products with the most innovative media. Thus, if paper and telescopes were used in the charlatan’s performances of early modern times,2 the panoply of 19th-century charlatans included opera, natural-history museums, electricity, the daily press, the service of a secretary, and the rhetoric of science and statistics.

Charlatanería and Médicos in Spanish America

In his text “On Quackery,” one of his Cartas eruditas y curiosas (1742–1760), the Spanish Benedictine monk and professor of theology Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro (1676–1764) described quackery as a pestilence that afflicted Europe. In his diagnosis, Feijóo observed that quacks took on the role of the foreign doctor, a traveler arriving from distant parts. Charlatans appealed to the admiration for imported things (for example, spices and fabrics) among the common people. In Germany, allure attached to being called a “French doctor,” in France, being called an Italian physician was good coin. Charlatans solved a problem for early modern travelers and science: how to persuade onlookers of facts that had not been seen directly, as expressed in the proverbs such as “à beau mentir qui vient de loin,” or “Travelers from afar may lie with authority.” Charlatans turned distance and remote observation into an attraction. Traveling foreign operators, dentists, and oculists, or “Arabs” and “Turks” selling charms and faked relics with miraculous curative powers, were found in every nation, and they largely escaped the regulations of the local medical guilds. The English medical literature is filled with “quack detectors,” testifying to a chronic inability to eradicate dangerous competitors.

With regard to Spanish America, quackery represented a twofold phenomenon: first, a problem in legal terms, and second, a solution for the chronic shortage of physicians and licensed medical practitioners.3 In the context of the Spanish monarchy, the medical profession was regulated by the protomedicatos modeled after the analogous institution in Spain. These tribunals consisted of three physicians (protomedicos) entrusted with the duties of examining medical practitioners (including surgery, phlebotomy, and midwifery) and inspecting pharmacies, their main goal being to ban unqualified and unlicensed curanderos. In Spain the protomedicatos started to dissolve with the Constitution of Cádiz early in the 1810s. In Buenos Aires they were disrupted in 1822, in Mexico in 1830–1831, and in Lima in 1848, when colonial institutions were either replaced by the new medical schools and institutions or when the medical chairs from colonial times assumed the regulation of medical practice.

The illicit practice of medicine flourished throughout the New World, where a shortage of licensed physicians represented a perennial problem and the protomedicato tribunals were flexible enough not to follow what the law prescribed, especially taking into consideration that even in the capitals there were no more than a few licensed doctors. In smaller cities local authorities conceded licenses to curanderos or declined to inquire about their certification, while in Indian towns it was not even illegal to practice without a license. Shortage of licensed physicians favored the foreign intruder, who should have been banned by the law but who enjoyed the allure already mentioned by Feijóo. Quacks, charlatans, and mountebanks acquired prominence in Spanish America, where the law never had never strictly regulated the practice of medicine. The laws contributed instead to shape the modern charlatan who learned how to mimic the regulations set by the colonial order, and later by the new republics.

Contributing to the fluid situation was the fact, evident to all onlookers, that the officially sanctioned healers could not do what they claimed to be able to do: cure illness. It was, after all, an era before antisepsis, before microbes and the chemical serums proven to destroy them, and before radiology as a diagnostic tool. Traditional healers with their knowledge of botanical simples were likely more effective in treating disease than were credentialed physicians under the spell of theories of miasmasf or phrenology

Medicine ranked well below other occupations in the social prestige in colonial Spanish America, a situation that continued after independence, when—as happened in Buenos Aires—the practice of surgery and the school of medicine established late in the 1810s had to be linked to the army and the military career in order to recruit students.4 In the colonial world, physicians enjoyed low incomes, and those wishing to be licensed had to gain admission to a university, which required proof of legitimacy and purity of blood, conditions sometimes impossible to meet. Moreover medicine was an obligation first and a profitable career second: a licensed physician had the obligation to take charity cases and treat poor people gratis, including the purchase of drugs. No physician could excuse himself from attending a person with a contagious disease, nor could he run from a city suffering from an epidemic. “Love for one’s fellow and interest in the public health” constituted the physician’s creed.5 In reality, practicing doctors honored the creed in the breech by declining to attend to the poor. As a result, a large portion of the population sought other agents: curanderos, foreign traveling doctors, intrusos (intruders), and the clergy—all of whom were available to attend those who either could not afford the services of licensed physicians or were ignored by them.

Medicastros with forged papers abounded at the same rate as African, French, and English empirics, who could never have practiced medicine officially without naturalization and legal license. As Lanning remarked, “a foreign doctor never petitioned to enter the Spanish dominions; he merely appeared.”6 Charlatans charged with unlicensed practice presented law courts with dramatic and pathetic stories situated in the realm of the plausible. It was hard for a magistrate to differentiate between forged and real diplomas. Intruders falsified documents in order to cope with the legal regulations or tried to convince Spanish authorities of their expertise, particularly if a community was in need of medical care. Usually claiming that their documents had been lost or displaced, these foreigners sought recognition by falsely claiming that they had both earned the requisite medical degree in Europe and had an excellent record of cures. English and French practitioners claimed they were harried and prosecuted Catholics. To make their case stronger, they declared their charity toward the poor. In some regions these foreign doctors were more prominent than their formally trained, legally licensed Spanish counterparts. Charlatans and intruders learned to follow the law. Profession of the Catholic faith, appeal to testimonies and diplomas, keeping of records and statistics, and fulfillment of medical obligations toward the poor were all designed to circumvent the legal regulations under the Spanish monarchy. Paraphrasing Berhard Siegert, the rituals of medical bureaucracy modeled the Spanish American quack.7

Nineteenth-century charlatans survived by adapting new technologies to old strategies and by conforming to the regulations established by the new republics. Italian quack Guido Bennati was one of a group of empirics, also known as curanderos, bleeders, and barbers. Bennati did not charge for his services. Many people were perplexed by his cures. The drugs that he used allegedly enabled him to perform minor surgery without pain, swelling, or excessive bleeding. Supporters wrote numerous testimonials expressing their gratitude for his ability to cure illnesses that had plagued them for years.

Guido Bennati, Charlatan of Two Worlds

World 1: Italy and France

“I am a charlatan, ladies and gentlemen; indeed, I am nothing more than a charlatan. But what I do, it is well done. Please, come in: it is free. I give money to the poor; only the rich have to pay. And when they do, they pay for all.”8 With these words pronounced sometime in the 1860s, Guido Bennati (1827–1898), an ambulant doctor from Pisa, introduced himself on his arrival at the market places in Tuscany. By calling himself a charlatan, Bennati did not disqualify his arts. He called his profession by its real name and value; he was an “unqualified,” self-styled practitioner in the lower regions of the medical profession who in Italy, during the time of the Risorgimento, were still licensed to sell some kinds of external remedies and to perform external operations. Bennati died in Buenos Aires in 1898, after having toured in South America and amassed natural history, archaeological, and anthropological collections, which he sold to the new Argentine Museo de La Plata (1884), where they are currently kept. In 1927, in the centennial of his birth, the Argentine Socialist Party honored his memory for his charity toward the poor and his devotion to natural history. The left-wing political movement of the 20th century canonized this 19th-century charlatan of two worlds.

In the Risorgimento, Bennati had made a name pulling teeth; cutting veins; binding wounds; straightening backbones and crooked legs; and healing the gnawing of lupus, ulcers, and lethal cancers. He knew how to do things quickly, avoiding pain in an age where anesthesia was non-existent and the poor scarcely had access to the health care provided by university physicians. He did not work alone: both in Europe and later in South America, he hired as assistants university-trained physicians—in charge of signing the prescriptions—and a secretary, who kept records of the illnesses treated on their itineraries. As the classic mountebank he was, Bennati arrived in a new town accompanied by a parade of exotically dressed musicians and entertainers. The Italian writer Renato Fucini left an account of Bennati’s entrance into Empoli, a town located about twenty kilometers southwest of Florence, which provides a clear image of his performances:

Around nine on Thursday morning a shrill blare of trumpets was heard and soon after, relays on horseback appeared, in elegant liveries of brilliant colors. At a well calculated distance from the horsemen traveled the great majestic carriage, pulled by four horses, on which he, Bennati, stood on his feet with Olympian calm, his breast overloaded with medals, surrounded by a thick group of his accomplices, male and female, dressed as Negroes, as red-skinned Americans, as near-naked cannibals from Oceania, and disguised in various styles that have never existed under the mantle of the sun, who gesticulated and talked to the diabolic sound of an infernal orchestra.9

Like many other traveling doctors, Bennati appealed to “drum and trumpet” theater performances. In the 19th century, these routines had incorporated the “ethnographic parade,” in the style of the P. T. Barnum’s circus and other traveling American shows. Fucini mentions also that Bennati’s final speech in Empoli was accompanied by the “Guerra, guerra!” chorus from Bellini’s Norma, which during the Risorgimento era was used in nationalist demonstrations. Bennati—who in the 1860s took part in one of the Garibaldi expeditions against Rome—learned how to use politics in support of his enterprise. Bennati called himself “Commendatore,” “Knight Commander” of the Asiatic Order of Universal Morality, a circle of practitioners of animal magnetism established in Paris in the 1830s. This order manufactured diplomas for sale across Europe. Apparently, Bennati obtained his document from a French merchant in decorations, pasta, and wine.

Bennati and an old licensed French physician paraded in various towns in the north of France in 1865. They were sued in Lille for dealing in secret remedies, a case widely publicized in European medical journals as the best way to end charlatanism. They both offered to perform various operations of surgery in the public marketplaces. In the trial it was proved that it was not the licensed doctor who conducted the operations but Bennati, the leading man in the matter, someone “totally unprovided with qualifications.”10 The English medical press celebrated the fines that they both received: such a procedure “must offer some discouragement to the progress of quackery, and is very superior to the impunity which would attend persons acting in the same manner in our own country.”11 The English would indeed have struck the doctor from their Register, but this could have not harmed his partner, the quack—a good example of the afterglow of the golden age of charlatanism.

World 2: South America

The first traces of Bennati in South America date from the late 1860s, when he started traveling there with his successive families, his faux remedies, and his natural-history collections. Once in South America, he honored himself with the presidency of the so-called Italian Medico-Chirurgical Scientific Commission, an association of his invention that included a secretary, a physician, and several helpers and servants. With this Commission he journeyed through Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, pretending he was a traveling naturalist sent by Italy to collect data and artifacts and to promote the natural wealth and potential of South America among European investors. In this way, his museum of natural history and his scientific voyage took on the role of a spectacle to sell curative powers. Bennati was not the first to use the “museum” as an advertising strategy: 19th-century popular anatomical museums in fact promoted remedies against syphilis. What is relevant here is the importance of natural history in 19th-century Latin America, something that Bennati easily discovered at his arrival. He quickly abandoned circus and opera motifs in favor of the identity of traveling naturalist. Bennati, as a perambulating empiric, brought with him not only an assortment of lancets, blister-salves, emetics, narcotics, cathartics, and diuretics, but also the allure of association with natural history. Thanks to his charitable works in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the Government of Bolivia accepted his medical diploma as legitimate, which by existing international agreements also had to be recognized by Argentina. In this way, the Commendatore became a licensed doctor.

Bennati arrived in Argentina when the first national exhibition of industrial and natural products was being organized in the city of Córdoba in 1870, and, given that he was acting as a traveling naturalist, several provincial governments commissioned him to collect specimens from the environs and to attend the exhibition as their representative. At this occasion, he—or more often his secretaries—wrote reports, kept detailed records of the number of people healed on his travels (see Figure 1), and gave speeches on behalf of progress. He was applauded by an audience of educated gentlemen, who were eager to second the enthusiasm Bennati displayed for the future of the country. Most probably, the experience of the exhibition, and the instructions given by the organizers regarding what and how to collect, taught him which kind of objects governments and politicians valued most.

Charlatans and Medicine in 19th-Century Latin AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Table presenting the number of people treated by Bennati in Mendoza.

Courtesy of Archivo Provincial de Mendoza.

The Commission voyaged in Argentina and Paraguay, navigating the Upper Paraguay River up to the Brazilian fluvial port of Corumbá, a link with Mato Grosso and the Amazon basin which had become strategically important for international trade. As they traveled, Bennati and his companions created a network of itinerant counterparts: exiles, émigrés, disappointed European politicians, anarchists, republicans, revolutionaries, and simply adventurers or pretenders trying to survive by their wits. The press, the writing, and the supposedly neutral rhetoric of science, nature, and progress represented the tools that assured their survival in the New World. Bennati’s Commission arrived in 1875 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and subsequently continued to other Bolivian cities—Cochabamba, La Paz, Sucre, Potosí, and Tarija. They collected fossils, ethnographic objects, and archaeological antiquities.

The Commission then returned to Bolivia, where they undertook excursions to archaeological ruins, thereby ratifying their interest in nature and culture. They produced publications: Relación del Viaje de la Comisión Científica Médico-Quirúrgica Italiana por el Norte del Gran Chaco y el Sud de la Provincia de Chiquitos (1875), El Naturalismo Positivo en la Medicina (1875), De Santacruz a Cochabamba. Compendio de los Trabajos Ejecutados en este Trayecto (1876), and Diplomas i documentos de honor de Europa y América que adorna el nombre del ilustre comendador Dr. Guido Bennati (1876). While “Diplomas and Documents” is a transcription of testimonies called to witness the veracity of the titles possessed by Bennati as a doctor of medicine, the first and the third were travel descriptions, being the second a compendium of ideas on the most modern methods in medicine. These publications described what the members of the Commission encountered on their travels: fauna, flora, mineral resources, ruins, and indigenes. They also proposed a plan of action for the local government and elite to improve the economy by means of new roads and the encouragement of industry and commerce. Printed on inexpensive paper with a very dense typography, these literary works sold in the printing offices of the newspapers owned by the Commission’s supporters.

In every city they visited, the charlatans were involved in the foundation of museums, hospitals, and charitable works, but they also tangled with various local personalities, who sought to demonstrate that the Commission was a fraud and that none of its members actually were what they pretended to be. Despite these allegations, Bennati’s entourage moved freely in scientific and literary circles. They were accepted and welcomed by various political factions and some members of the Catholic clergy, who dispensed them honors and supported their initiatives in the fields of public health, charity, and science.

World 2 (bis): South American Deep Past—Mummies

In November 1876, Bennati’s Commission arrived in La Paz after having completed “the scientific study of the material resulting from their travels with regards to Hygiene, Climatology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology, Zoology, Industry and Commerce of the Argentinean, Paraguayan and Oriental Republics.”12 They wanted to “publish the most exact work on its Ethnography and the systems of mountains and rivers, questions absolutely related to the problem of Hygiene.” They promised to publish a “Descriptive History of the Republic of Bolivia,” imitating the propagandistic publications about natural resources that other Spanish American countries had used to attract European settlers.

In La Paz, the Commission installed itself in a house located in the main square of the city. Doctor Bennati opened for medical consultation from seven to eleven o’clock in the morning, and his museum opened from one to four o’clock in the afternoon, displaying curiosities representing the diversity and richness of the nature and arts of South America. The museum offered to purchase books in all languages, plants, fruits, fossils, petrifactions, and furniture from the age of the conquistadores or related to the arts and nature of the regions. At the next venue, these acquisitions would provide material to back up claims of original research and could also be sold. The museum was the center of a sophisticated medical-commercial enterprise. Moreover, it popularized the very idea of what a museum represented. As an instrument for gathering new materials for other museums, it spread knowledge about contemporary scientific disciplines around the world. Bennati and his secretary gave lectures and published in the Bolivian newspapers, reporting the results of their excavations in Tiahuanaco. They propagated the old idea of two ancient races, shown by skulls found in the ruins and exhibited in the museum. In this way, they based themselves on scientific literature and promoted the expansion of anthropological and paleontological collections.

In 1879, Bennati exhibited his collection in northwestern Argentina, at the city of Salta. Then the collection was made up of objects collected in Bolivia. The exhibition, placed on shelves in the spaces he had rented, was open to the public for a modest price. The social chronicles of the exposition presented it as a museum that would interest ladies and gentlemen alike, as well as men of science and everyone curious about new discoveries. In Buenos Aires, the museum opened on January 16, 1883. The archaeological, anthropological, paleontological, and natural-history exposition contained minerals; a cornucopia of vegetables that were of great importance for medicine, cleaning, and eating; animal skins, dissected animals and a large variety of reptiles preserved in alcohol; a live, domesticated lion that lived with a lamb; and tiny animal fossils. There were also “Objects of Incalculable Value”—mummies, utensils, weapons, costumes, and musical instruments from indigenous peoples. According to the advertisement published in the press, so large was the collection that an actual list of the multitude of objects would tire the readers. The entrance ticket cost ten pesos, and every visitor received an explanatory catalogue. The exhibition was known in the city as the Bennati Museum or the South American Scientific Museum.

An embalmed Indian, with her adornments and dresses, belonging to the Potoreros tribe of Bolivia presided over the entrance to the vast salon, whose walls were covered with the collections that overflowed the shelves. To the right, behind a counter, two women masquerading as Bolivian Indians acted as receptionists. Among the anthropological objects displayed by Bennati were complete mummies, one of which was said to be a “true museum of jewels and adornments, of which the magnificent necklaces made of lapis lazuli stand out.” The seven mummies on display, six women and one man, had been taken from the Sierra del Peru, the Islas del Sol and de la Luna from Lake Titicaca, and a cave fourteen thousand feet above sea level in the Sierra of Sajama, also in Bolivia. The museum demonstrated a clear understanding of the sensibility and tastes of the urban public.

Benatti prepared new medicines that combined known therapeutics with American secrets enhancing their efficacy. For example, he advertised an operation for the “three great hemorrhoids, using our Incan paste,” supposedly found during excavations in the Bolivian caves, the same place where the mummies and the skulls presented in the museum were allegedly from. Bennati said he had uncovered pieces of ancient pottery, filled with containers of a salve that was analyzed and tested in Bolivian hospitals, curing external and skin diseases; wounds; scabies; leprosy; and joint, tooth, and arthritic pain. Bennati rubbed this cream in the affected area until it was quite warm and covered the wound with a towel soaked in cold water and folded four times. The towel had to be changed regularly. The miracle cream—which he had been using since Italy—had been analyzed in a trial in Lille, France; it was concocted of turpentine, rosin, and tallow. Bennati, in calling the salve an Incan remedy, was merely applying an effective sales strategy.

Native Remedies and Testimonials

Plant, mineral, and animal remedies were central to therapeutics in the 16th and 17th centuries, to such an extent that the whole of the natural world seemed to comprise a repository of remedies: “The Earth is God’s Pharmacopolion”—as Paracelsian alchemist and physician Oswald Croll (1563–1609) put it. In this context, the promotion of medical simples and products arriving from the Indies (as well as from Asia and Africa) combined with the 16th-century Christian trope that “the common people not only had an unmediated access to the Real but also possessed ‘secrets’ … a body of natural knowledge unknown to the savants.”13 Quacks in the 19th and early 20th centuries perpetuated these tropes in the selling of remedies, which were advertised both for their natural (vegetable or animal) composition and their “Indian” origin.

The proliferation of newspapers and printing offices in the Americas (and Europe) made possible not only the publication of works like Bennati’s but also the wide circulation of old remedy books (recetarios), the latter a hotchpotch of traditional European pharmacy (excrement, animal oils, echoes of old astrological medicine), South American products, and the fashionable remedies from the 19th century. Nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals abound in advertisements about Andean teas for the stomach, roots and herbs from the Brazilian forest for providing hair shine, or Inca creams such as the paste sold by Bennati in the 1880s. Whereas Bennati represents the old ambulant mountebank type, the late 19th century sees the establishment of the sedentary “inventor” or discoverer of Indian drugs—a new version of the traditional empiric. Thus, in early 20th-century Colombia, Clodomiro Nieto C., touted as a famous inventor of the three vegetable compounds with more success and fame in modern medicine than any others, sold “Vegetable Medicine: Indian prescription; specially for syphilis, rheumatism, impure blood and ailments of the kidneys; as its effects are also positive in the treatment of leprosy in its fourth period,” and one “Indian specific” (específico indio), an

unequalled preparation, a benefactor of mankind. Where used, pain cannot exist. It is, both as an internal and external medicine, the best cure known for rheumatism, whether acute or chronic, colic, neuralgia, stings and bites from poisonous animals, and cure and prophylactic against smallpox, grippe, stomach diseases—for it is an excellent appetizer, bracer and tonic—yellow fever, and malaria. It is the victorious rival of quinine. Its curative effects are immediately felt.14

This vegetable/vernacular origin was contrasted to pernicious—and more expensive—chemical products. Quacks are expedient rather than consistent. Nieto invoked science and chemistry precisely to prove the veracity of the remedies: syrups against tuberculosis (jarabes antitísicos) were scientifically prepared, but composed of entirely harmless vegetables, containing no opium, codein, bromophorm, morphine, nor any other sedative, “as proved by the chemical analyses made in Cartagena by the noted chemist Dr. Trinchero, and in compliance with Dr. J. B. Londoño’s orders, by the Departmental Laboratory of Medellín.”15

In Argentina in the 1920s, in the context of disenchantment with “Western civilization” that followed the Great War, this naturalistic argument combined with Anti-European and anti-scientific tropes. Thus Perfecto Paciente Bustamante (1870–1932), in his book El Naturalismo Argentino, stated: “Old and decrepit Europe will necessarily bow before the wisdom of young Argentina in order to learn how to cure its stinking scourges, incurable by its ‘science.’”

Charlatans and Medicine in 19th-Century Latin AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Advertisement of Casa Bustamente, from Caras y Caretas. Private Collection.

Bustamente, born in the Argentine province of La Rioja, was the owner of a commercial house of Andean products established in Buenos Aires in 1897 (see Figure 2). In the 1920s—in a context of the mummy-mania associated to the discovery of Tutankhamen—“Casa Bustamante” not only sold herbs and Andean remedies but also displayed an archaeological collection, which included the mummy of an “Inca princess” bought from a dealer in antiquities in Salta.16 As Bennati had done in his museum from the 1880s, Bustamante associated his products with the ancient cultures from the Andes, the source of the power of his remedies. And in this way, the archaeological past profited from the allure that distant, exotic places also had as a source of real knowledge: it contributed to consolidate what Hans-Ullrich Gumbrecht has called a “geography of authenticity,” a distribution of things and people that places the “real” in “peripheries” of the South.17

Quacks and empirics were not only excellent collectors and displayers of remedies, secrets, and artifacts: as shown by Bennati’s “Diplomas and Documents,” they also collected an immense number of testimonials from honorable persons throughout the countries they visited or where they were established. While quacks and mountebanks have been making use of flyers and the printing press since early modern times, in the 19th century they adopted the newspaper. And newspapers adopted them as a cash cow.

Discussion of the Literature

An enormous literature exists on medical licensing and the prosecution of quacks. Whereas there is a wealth of literature on the classic Italian charlatans and popular medicine in Europe, the persistence of the strategies they used over the centuries and continents still merits attention. Matthew Ramsey, in his classic book on professional and popular medicine in France (1770–1830), emphasized the historiographical problem that the character of the charlatan poses in terms of tradition versus innovation. He also discussed the problem of taxonomy in the history of the professions devoted to medical care, taking into account that the categories were established following laws for medical regulation.

In Latin American historiography, charlatans are discussed as a local phenomenon, restricted to a country or region. Probably two of the most remarkable cases are Miguel Perdomo Neira (active in Ecuador and Colombia) and Telmo Romero (active in Venezuela). Both gained national visibility thanks to their involvement in local politics. Romero acted as director of the lunatics’ hospital in Caracas, representing a very good example of how charlatans gained access to the direction of state-run institutions. Empirics with the prominence of Perdomo Niera and Telmo Romero have received attention by David Sowell and Ramón Velásquez. Lesser-known empirics are analyzed by Silvia di Liscia (in connection with popular medicine in Argentina) and Diego Armus, in relation to tuberculosis treatments.

Less interest has been devoted to the history of traveling people and ambulant doctors such as Bennati; their traces are elusive in national and institutional histories precisely because they were continually on the move, and their sources are scattered in different national and provincial repositories. Moreover, some secondary sources treat them as legitimate, traveling naturalists. Without crossing national borders, without bringing together the puzzle created by the itinerant life, without a broader perspective that includes the history of the medical profession in Europe and in early modern times, this history is trapped by fragmented documentation, producing the mistaken identification of an idiosyncratic Latin American development. No wonder that they are extensively mentioned in the literature connected with the study of local folklore. As Matthew Ramsey suggested, this literature ratifies the idea that charlatanism and unauthorized medical practice—belonging to popular culture—had no history.

Popular traveling museums in Latin America also require more attention. Heloisa Barbuyl has explored these exhibitions in São Paulo, Brazil. In Europe and the United States, various authors have pointed out that these museums were run by supposed “doctors” who, in reality, exploited them as propaganda for their curative methods. Appealing to medical and hygienic discourse, these “quacks” used the anatomical museum as a stage from which to accuse their competitors of incompetence. This explains the distrust of medical colleges in various cities, where the promoters of these museums were seen as vendors of dangerous and diverse treatments. The museum owned by Bennati shows that it is quite difficult to draw a line between commercial initiatives, medical offices, and university medicine, and that in Latin America this topic still deserves further research.


I would like to thank Lewis Pyenson for his suggestions on earlier versions of this article.

Primary Sources

Diplomas i documentos de honor de Europa y América que adorna el nombre del ilustre comendador Dr. Guido Bennati. Cochabamba: Gutiérrez, 1876.Find this resource:

El Naturalismo positivo en la Medicina. Santa Cruz de la Sierra: Imprenta de Cayetano Daza, 1875.Find this resource:

Museo Científico Sud-Americano de Arqueología, Antropología, Paleontologjía y en general de todo lo concerniente a los tres reinos de la naturaleza por el Dr. D. Guido Benatti. Buenos Aires: Tipografía La Famiglia Italiana, 1883.Find this resource:

Bustamante, Perfecto Paciente. Manual del naturalismo argentino. Buenos Aires: Imprenta C. J. Bossio e hijos, 1927.Find this resource:

Hardy, William. Travels in the Interior of Mexico in 1825, 1826, 1827 & 1828. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1829.Find this resource:

Oballe, Esteban. Biografía del Doctor Miguel. M Perdomo Neira hasta el 13 de Noviembre de 1873. Ocaña: Imprenta de José Jacome, 1873.Find this resource:

Posada Callejas, J.El libro azul de Colombia. Bosquejos biográficos de los personajes más eminentes. Historia condensada de la República. Artículos especiales sobre ek Comercio, Agricultura y Riqueza Mineral, basados en las Estadísticas Oficiales. Bogotá, 1918.Find this resource:

Recetario medicinal del célebre Doctor Mandouti, médico del siglo pasado en nuestra República Argentina. Buenos Aires: Imprenta de la Libertad, 1836.Find this resource:

Romero, Telmo. El Bien General, colección de secretos indígenas, y otros que por medio de la práctica ha descubierto el Dr. Telmo A. Romero, acompañados de sus respectivas fórmulas prácticas, y seguidos de un compendio de veterinaria según sus últimos descubrimientos. Caracas: Imprenta Nacional, 1885.Find this resource:

Newspaper collections: Biblioteca Nacional de Bolivia, Hemeroteca Archivo Provincial de Salta, Archivo Provincial de Corrientes, and Biblioteca José de San Martín de la Provincia de Mendoza (Argentina). Diplomas y Documentos, El Naturalismo positivo, as well as Bennati’s speeches from the Boletín de la Exposición Nacional de Córdoba, are kept in the Argentine National Library (the University of Harvard library has another copy of Diplomas). The Museo Histórico from Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia keeps Relación del viaje, and the Benson Latin American Collection from the University of Texas at Austin, Compendio de los trabajos. They had been previously mentioned and collected by Bolivian historian Gabriel René Moreno (1836–1908) in his Biblioteca boliviana, catálogo de la seccion de libros i folletos (Santiago de Chile: Gutenberg, 1879). The French trial against Bennati is kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (site Mitterand).

Scott Pembroke’s film “The Medicine Man (1930)” displays the flamboyant character of traveling medicine doctors, their relationship with the circus and exhibition culture in 20th-century America, as well as their role as a broker or cultural mediator. Dr. John Harvey travels in rural America by car, selling a remedy called Pepto-Pawnee. With the same strategies used in the early modern period, he advertises the authenticity of his product by having close to him a Pawnee chief, the leader of the tribe that discovered this secret formula. And this is happening when the American chemical industry had popularized Pepto-Bismol, a kind of syrup that in the 1920s was sold at drugstore soda fountains.

Further Reading

Armus, Diego. La ciudad impura. Salud, tuberculosis y cultura en Buenos Aires, 1870–1950. Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2007.Find this resource:

Barbuy, Heloisa. “Cultura de exposições em São Paulo, no século XIX.” In Colecionismos, práticas de campo e representações. Edited by Maria Margaret Lopes and Alda Heizer, 257–268. Campina Grande/PB: EDUEPB, 2011.Find this resource:

Beltrán, Juan Ramón. Historia del protomedicato de Buenos Aires; estado de los conocimientos sobre medicina en el Río de la Plata, durante la época colonial. Los galenos españoles y los magos o curanderos indígenas. Antecedentes históricos y legales de la fundación del protomedicato y de la Escuela médica de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: El Ateneo, 1937.Find this resource:

Gambaccini, Piero. Mountebanks and Medicasters: A History of Italian Charlatans from the Middle Ages to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.Find this resource:

Lanning, John Tate, and John J. TePaske. The Royal Protomedicato: The Regulation of the Medical Professions in the Spanish Empire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Liscia, Maria Silvia di. Saberes, terapias y prácticas médicas en Argentina (1750–1910). Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 2002.Find this resource:

Obregón, Diana. “El sentimiento de nación en la literature médica y naturalista de finales de Siglo XIX en Colombia.” Dynamis. Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientarumque Historiam Illustrandam 12 (1992): 47–62.Find this resource:

Ortiz Monasterio, José. “Los médicos charlatanes del Siglo XIX. El caso del viajero inglés William Hardy.” In Un hombre entre Europa y América: homenaje a Juan Antonio Ortega y Medina. Edited by Amaya Garritz, 315–326. Mexico: UNAM/Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, 1993.Find this resource:

Plath, Oreste. Folclor Médico Chileno. Santiago de Chile: Grijalbo, 1996.Find this resource:

Podgorny, Irina. Los viajes en Bolivia de la Comisión Médico-Científico-Quirúrgica Italiana. Santa Cruz de la Sierra: Fundación Nova, 2011.Find this resource:

Podgorny, Irina. Charlatanes. Crónicas de Remedios Incurables. Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2012.Find this resource:

Podgorny, Irina. “Travelling Museums and Itinerant Collections in Nineteenth-Century Latin America.” Museum History Journal 6 (2013): 127–146.Find this resource:

Podgorny, Irina. “From Lake Titicaca to Guatemala: The Travels of Joseph Charles Mano and His Wife of Unknown Name.” In Nature and Antiquities: The Making of Archaeology in the Americas. Edited by Philip Kohl, Irina Podgorny, and Stefanie Gänger, 125–144. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Ramsey, Matthew. Professional and Popular Medicine in France, 1770–1830: The Social World of Medical Practice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Sowell, David. The Tale of Healer Miguel Perdomo Neira. Medicine, Ideologies, and Power in the Nineteenth-Century Andes. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001.Find this resource:

Velásquez, Ramón J.Joaquín Crespo. El último caudillo militar del liberalismo venezolano. Andanzas caraqueñas del curandero tachirense Telmo A. Romero (1884–1887). Caracas: FEUNET, 2011.Find this resource:


(1.) Matthew Ramsey, Professional and Popular Medicine in France, 1770–1830: The Social World of Medical Practice (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(2.) Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Albert Van Helden, “Telescopes and Authority from Galileo to Cassini,” Osiris 9 (1994): 9–29.

(3.) This section is mostly based on John Tate Lanning and John J. TePaske, The Royal Protomedicato: the Regulation of the Medical Professions in the Spanish Empire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985), in particular chapters 5, 6, and 8.

(4.) Irina Podgorny, “Los médicos de muertos y la Paleontología en el Plata medicina legal, cirugía militar y observación de campo en la obra de Francisco X. Muñiz, 1830–1850,” Anuario IEHS: Instituto de Estudios histórico sociales 25 (2010): 303–328. Throughout Europe medical doctors could live in poverty if they did not have a large “practice.”

(5.) Lanning, The Royal Protomedicato, 202.

(6.) Lanning, The Royal Protomedicato, 160.

(7.) Bernhard Siegert, Passagiere und Papiere: Schreibakte auf der Schwelle zwischen Spanien und Amerika (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2006).

(8.) In Michele Lessona, Venti anni fa (Roma: E. Perino), 82.

(9.) Renato Fucini quoted in Piero Gambaccini, Mountebanks and Medicasters: A History of Italian Charlatans from the Middle Ages to the Present (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004), 200.

(10.) “From Abroad. Prosecution of Charlatanism in France,” The Medical Times and Gazette. A Journal of Medical Science 2 (1865): 500.

(11.) “From Abroad,” 500.

(12.) This section is based on the news published in the Bolivian Press (Biblioteca Nacional de Bolivia), in particular El Titicaca, November 9, 1876; La Reforma, November 15 and December 16, 1876; and El Ferrocarril, March 7, 1877.

(13.) William Eamon, “Markets, Piazzas, and Villages,” in The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 3, Early Modern Science, eds. Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 217; and Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 91. On the “unmediated access to the Real” in American culture, see Joshua Bellin, “Taking the Indian Cure: Thoreau, Indian Medicine, and the Performance of American Culture,” The New England Quarterly 79.1 (2006): 3–36.

(14.) Jorge Posada Callejas, Libro azul de Colombia (New York: J. J. Little and Ives, 1918), 316.

(15.) “Helpful Medicines,” Libro azul de Colombia, 288.

(16.) Julián Cáceres Freyre, “Bio-Bibliografía de Perfecto Paciente Bustamante (1870–1932). Escritor, coleccionista y precursor del Folklore de la provincial de La Rioja,” Boletín del Instituto Bonaerense de Numismática y Antigüedades 18 (1995): 47–66.

(17.) Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).