November 20

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Maryland Journal (November 20, 1773).

“Such unworthy motives as these are far from Dr. Gilbert’s intention.”

When Dr. H. Gilbert relocated from Philadelphia to Baltimore, he inserted an advertisement in the Maryland Journal to introduce himself to the community and solicit patients who wished to consult him about “all the disorders to which the human body is incident.”  His lively notice included commentary about the kinds of advertisements that others who provided medical services often placed. “It is now become almost customary,” the doctor observed, “at least many have of late thought proper to begin their address to the public with liberal encomiums on their own knowledge, practice, and abilities.”  When they arrived in new places, doctors could not rely on their reputations to encourage patients to see them; in the absence of such familiarity, many emphasized their training and experience to assure prospective patients that they would be in good hands.

Gilbert found a certain aspect of such introductions particularly unsavory and disingenuous.  Some doctors, he charged, “at once declare there is no disorder, however accute or malignant in its nature, that they cannot immediately not only give relief in, but effectually eradicate, without the least inconvenience or danger to the patient.”  Those claims appeared in too many newspaper advertisements and handbills, leading “persons who are unacquainted with the human frame” to believe that “many disorders exist altogether in the imagination, by the easy manner in which they are said to be expelled.”  Such marketing had two outcomes: “imposing on the ignorant” and “the emolument of the authors of such preposterous assertions.”  Unfortunately, patients often had a “fatal experience” under those circumstances.  Gilbert suggested that grandiose promises from doctors “must … appear in a very ridiculous light to every person of the smallest degree of penetration.”  In a backhanded fashion, he discouraged readers from seeking treatment from quacks and charlatans who seemed to promise too much.

Gilbert pledged that he would give patients false hopes by telling them merely what they wanted to hear and taking their money for cures that did not work.  He would not make “preposterous assertions” and swindle them: “such unworthy motives as these are far from Dr. Gilbert’s intention.”  He did relay his own credentials, “being regularly bred to his profession, as well as his having had several years experience and practice by land and sea, and in Germany, Holland, and America,” but did not make the kinds of unfounded assertions that he critiqued.  Instead, he stated that he would “exert his utmost abilities to serve” patients and “by good attendance and a particular attention to their respective cases, endeavour to merit the patronage of the public.”  In other words, Gilbert stressed the individualized care that he bestowed on each patient.  He assessed their particular symptoms and recommended care specific to their needs.  Rather than making self-promotion and dubious promises the centerpieces of his marketing efforts, he emphasized honesty and respect in his interactions with the public and his patients.

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