Humbug is rife: cancer quackery, 1892 and 2015

Bleach is among the dangerous fake ‘cures’ for cancer and other serious diseases being offered for sale to people in the UK, according to recent reports:

MMS is a 28% sodium chlorite solution, which is equivalent to industrial-strength bleach. When taken as directed it could cause severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, potentially leading to dehydration and reduced blood pressure. If the solution is diluted less than instructed, it could cause damage to the gut and red blood cells, potentially resulting in respiratory failure.

This so-called “miracle mineral solution” appears to target vulnerable people and those suffering serious illnesses who are asked to pay large sums of money for a product which not only doesn’t work but could be dangerous.

Both black and red salves are corrosive and essentially burn off layers of the skin and surrounding normal tissue. They can destroy large parts of the skin and underlying tissue, and leave significant scarring.

In 1892, in New South Wales in Australia, Sam and Thomas Hood, a father and son team were found guilty of manslaughter after they caused the death of a woman called Rebecca Cohen by attempting to treat her throat and chin cancer using caustic poultices. These probably contained diluted sulphuric acid and destroyed, painfully, her lip, chin and throat. The judge commented:

Greed, unblushing impudence, gross ignorance, systematic falsehood, and callous indifference to human life and suffering, were the features they had displayed — the genuine lineaments of the quack.

Cancer quackery advert, published 1912, Journal of American Medical Association. Wellcome Library, London.

Cancer quackery advert, published 1912, Journal of American Medical Association. Wellcome Library, London.

Rebecca Cohen was not the last. Back to the present day, black salve is listed as a fake cancer ‘cure’ by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr Stephen Barrett at Quackwatch has documented some of the cases where people have used these products, with horrifying results. 

A quick google took me to many websites selling the stuff that claim black salve can cure all types of cancer. This information is supposedly suppressed by the monolith of the pharmaceutical industry, medical establishment and governments because the ingredients are natural and therefore profit-less, a familiar claim debunked here by Cancer Research UK.

In 1911, the BMJ published an article by Dr EF Bashford, laboratory director at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (the ICRF merged in 2002 with the Cancer Research Campaign to form Cancer Research UK). In ‘Cancer, credulity and quackery’, he takes a pretty comprehensive look at the cancer ‘cures’ sent to the ICRF, concluding that ‘Humbug is rife indeed’.

Dr Bashford identified certain tropes, some of which ring bells from the way ‘cures’ are promoted today:

  • when asked for the components of the remedy, or the evidence for diagnosis or cure, many ‘correspondents flatly refused to comply with these conditions, alleging in extenuation that they were unjust.’
  • when claimants did comply with these requests, ‘without exception, the claims so confidently made have been without any scientific justification’.

The eloquent Dr Bashford comments:

The number of quacks outside the profession also engaged as “cancer curers” cannot be estimated, but must be very much greater than the several hundred correspondents who were either sufficiently honest, impertinent, or naive as to bring their proceedings to my notice.


BBC News website. Former NHS worker still selling ‘miracle cure’ bleach, published 14 September, accessed 15 September 2015.

Bashford EF. Cancer, Credulity, and Quackery, BMJ 1911; 1(2630): 1221-1230.

Cancer Research UK website. Don’t believe the hype – 10 persistent cancer myths debunked, accessed 15 September 2015.

The Evening News, Sydney, via Trove website. The Cancer Case. “Dr” Hood and son. At the Central Criminal Court, 27 April 1892; and The Cancer Case. “Dr Hood and son. Heavy sentence, 4 May 1892.

Food and Drug Administration website. 187 Fake Cancer “Cures” Consumers Should Avoid, accessed 15 September 2015.

Food Standards Agency (UK government) website. Agency warning on chlorine solutions, accessed 15 September 2015.

Good Thinking Society website. Trading Standards action on ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’ conference in Surrey, and Daily Telegraph: “MPs call for police inquiry into bogus ‘cancer cures’”, both accessed 15 September 2015.

Quackwatch. Don’t Use Corrosive Cancer Salves (Escharotics), accessed 14 September 2015.

Surrey County Council website. Warning over bogus ‘miracle cure’ which could be on sale in Surrey, accessed 15 September 2015.

The Telegraph website. MPs call for police inquiry into bogus ‘cancer cures’ offer by alternative medicine practitioners, accessed 15 September 2015.

Therapeutic Goods Administration (Australian government) website. Black and red salves in treating cancer. TGA warns consumers about the use of Black and Red Salves in treating cancer, accessed 15 September 2015.

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