Better Health Sign
A quack doctor claimed to have developed a serum to cure cancer. His clinic operated under this sign.
"Dr. Ozias can truly tell the world he has a cure for cancer. May this message cheer those afflicted with cancer in any form."
—Mrs. J. J. Totty, Journal of Better Health, 1925
Cancer is a serious disease whose cure has long evaded the medical community. There is encouraging news about its treatment today, but not so long ago, cancer patients had little hope of survival.
Research was left up to individual physicians in the days before government-funded institutions (the National Cancer Institute was founded in 1937). Without federal regulation or oversight, almost anyone could claim he'd found a cure for cancer. One self-proclaimed savior was Charles Ozias, a physician who attracted patients from across the Midwest to his clinic in Kansas City.
Modern physicians must obtain a license from the state in which they wish to practice. States require applicants to pass a comprehensive exam, typically preceded by years of rigorous study. But in the late 19th century it was comparatively easy to obtain a medical license. Charles Ozias graduated from the Kansas City Medical College in 1892 after just two terms (less than two years). He received a Missouri license almost immediately, and put out his shingle just southeast of Kansas City in a town called Warrensburg, where he spent about two decades in general practice.
According to a biographical sketch from one of his own promotional pamphlets, Ozias began experimenting with hypodermic injections directly into diseased parts of the body while he was practicing medicine in Missouri. When the physician himself became ill with tuberculosis (he claimed as a result of intense study and research), he self-treated by the injection method. Eventually, Ozias applied this technique to cancerous growths in his patients and deemed it "effective."
Ozias moved to Kansas City around 1915, probably seeking a wider audience for this "cure." Daughter Myrtle obtained a medical license and joined her father in opening a downtown clinic. A few years later, Ozias outlined his cancer treatment in a paper read before physicians in St. Louis, and in 1922 he offered to treat 100 patients free-of-charge if doctors would send him their incurable cases.
The 1920s were the heyday for the Ozias clinic, which also operated under the name of the Better Health Association. The sign pictured here dates from that era. Charles Ozias attracted new patients by circulating pamphlets such as the Journal of Better Health. Filled with glowing testimonials, the Journal claimed the Ozias treatment conquered all sorts of conditions and diseases. The clinic was filled to capacity, and Ozias was obliged to look for "outside space to care for the sufferers who are begging for help and arriving daily in increased numbers." Plans were drawn up for a modern multi-story clinic to be built in Kansas. The future seemed rosy.
The only problem, of course, was that the serum didn't work. Although Ozias proudly proclaimed, "We invite investigation," his practices did not stand up to inspection. Patients who so blithely wrote testimonials for the Journal--some of them prominent citizens--died of cancer. An Iowa businessman who'd marketed Ozias' serum over the radio waves was revealed as a fraud. Time magazine published an expose referring to Ozias as a "quack." Old patients continued to die, potential patients sought treatment elsewhere, and plans for a grand new clinic vanished like a pipe dream.
It's difficult to say whether Ozias' intentions were mercenary or simply misguided. He may actually have believed in the powers of his serum, which according to one source was nothing more than glycerine, carbolic acid, and alcohol mixed with tea. At any rate, Ozias continued to market his cancer cure despite a steady professional decline. Arkansas revoked his medical license in 1936 for "advertising special ability to treat or cure chronic and incurable diseases." Missouri pulled its license in 1938 on grounds of "soliciting patients by false and fraudulent books and pamphlets." That left Kansas--the only state that would still allow him to practice medicine.
Discredited and decrepit (by then in his 80s), Ozias opened a practice in Kansas City, Kansas, in the early 1940s. When the American Medical Association inquired of the Kansas medical registration board if Ozias was still licensed in the state, the secretary replied:
"We regret to admit that he is [a] legally licensed practitioner of medicine in Kansas. . . . Advertising such as he does is unethical . . . but it is not unlawful in the State of Kansas. . . . We are hoping to find sufficient evidence soon so that we can bring revocation charges. If your legal department can show us a way in which we can proceed in the case, we shall greatly appreciate it."
By Kansas law, Ozias' license could be revoked only if he'd committed a felony, engaged in "gross immorality," or been declared unfit due to alcohol or drug addiction. Guilty of none of these crimes, he retained his license, but not for long. Charles Ozias died in early 1944 at his Kansas City home at the age of 82. He was buried in Warrensburg, Missouri, where his long and eventful medical career had begun.
The Better Health Association sign is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Better Health Sign
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: September 2007
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.