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'King of Quacks' made Schuylkill one of his stops

Published January 29. 2011 09:00AM

Through the early part of the 20th century, legitimate doctors were trying to shake off the negative image which had been built up by the many frauds who had infiltrated the medical profession. One writer called the charlatans "inveterate prescribers feeding medicines of which they knew little into bodies of which they knew less."

In early 1911, the Tamaqua Courier reported on the arrest of a "cure-all doctor" named Henry Junius Schireson, who had operated a "medical institute" in Shenandoah along with Max Fierstein of Scranton.

Charges were filed against the pair for conspiring to rob Stanislaw Gecicky of $67.20 for remedies they claimed were the only prescription that would prevent him from dying in six months. Gecicky wasn't the institute's only victim before it closed as both Schireson and Fierstein found immigrants of Schuylkill County easy prey.

Schireson had a long history in doling out phony medical advice. Though he had no medical degree, he managed to talk his way into a license from 12 state boards. One of his bogus claims was that he was a graduate of several colleges and medical schools. In reality, he only logged about one year of night school.

One source called Schireson the most notorious plastic surgery quack of the day, something he never denied and seemed even to relish. He once used the title "King of Quacks" to describe himself under oath. Even the Journal of the American Medical Association said the professional record of the "self-styled plastic surgeon and advertiser reeks to heaven."

Schireson somehow managed to practice medicine for 40 years - the last 10 in Philadelphia. Incredibly, he become the plastic surgeon of choice among many early stars in the entertainment world, although most of them had never heard of him until he presented his padded resume.

He claimed to have straightened actress Fanny Brice's nose, removed fat from "Peaches" Browning's legs and had other notable clients like Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford.

When asked by The New York Times why she chose to have work done, Brice said: "Everything about me has stopped growing except my nose. No woman on the stage today can afford to have a nose that is likely to keep on growing until she can swallow it."

The Times called Brice's nose job, and the plastic surgery field in general, "a miracle of science."

"Through the magic of facial surgery the path to the fountain of youth has been revealed," Schireson once stated during a lecture on plastic surgery in Toronto.

Many, however, found his surgical methods terrifying. One reporter went so far as to state that he "used hammers to whack noses into shape."

In one case, a young woman named Sadie Holland went to Schireson to have a shoulder scar removed. He said he could also straighten her legs for a $800 fee.

The operation was a total disaster and a regular physician had to be called in. Her legs were in such an advanced state of gangrene that both had to be amputated in order to save her life.

Not surprisingly, Schireson became the defendant in numerous malpractice lawsuits, mainly for what one writer called his "mayhem and dope peddling."

Schireson came to the U.S. from Russia in 1889, and reportedly received about one year's medical education at night school. He hit the quackery circuit running, and was arrested twice in Baltimore for peddling dope, once in Pittsburgh for practicing medicine on immigrants with a "machine" to cure syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer, other ailments, and once in New York City for practicing without a license.

The money he raked in was worth the risk. His work as a "specialist" during six busy weeks in Utica totaled $36,000. Before coming to Philadelphia, one journalist reported that Schireson made "one of the largest medical incomes in the U.S. - $500,000 a year."

While in Philadelphia, one patient who approached Schireson about making her neck prettier described him as a "heavyset man, sixtyish in appearance, dressed in youthful tweeds. His ready smile revealed excellent bridge-work."

He advised her that a neck treatment would merely give her "a perfect neck, a throat of vibrant youth, topped by an aged face," and that she should have "a complete rotary reconstruction" to make her face as beautiful as her eyes.

"Your eyes alone would be the dream of any plastic surgeon," the smooth-talking charlatan crooned.

Three days after the consultation, Schireson suggested "five corrections" at $250 each. The woman asked time to talk it over with her husband but instead, she contacted the media and Philadelphia police were notified.

Realizing that the police were closing in, Schireson surrendered with dignity. He arrived at a street-corner rendezvous in a limousine. Schireson was arrested and charged with obtaining money under false pretenses.

It was just one more chapter in the scurrilous life of the self-proclaimed "King of Quacks."

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