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An advertisement for Dr. B.F. Bye’s cancer treatment recently sold on eBay.

Home Grown Cancer Quacks
Current issues of healthcare reform aside, if you’ve gotta be sick, this is probably the best time to be unwell in the history of mankind. New therapies and medicines are reported daily — and for the most part, they’re credible. That hasn’t always been the case.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, your average neighborhood doctor may or may not have attended a reputable medical school. Make no mistake, genuine medical advances were made in that era, but there was no FDA… no Snopes… and no Google to help a wary consumer investigate “miraculous” claims. It was within this informational void that Indianapolis “doctors” D.M. and B.F. Bye perpetuated a family-owned, nationwide cancer treatment scheme that victimized thousands.

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The founding date of the Bye flim-flamily practice is difficult to determine but the original organization split around 1900, owing to business differences. The father and one son maintained establishments in Indianapolis and two other sons set up shop in Kansas City. The patriarch of the Bye business was D. M. Bye, president of the Dr. D. M. Bye Combination Oil Cure Company, located in the 300 block of North Illinois Street in Indianapolis.

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A Miraculous Potion…
The Bye Combination Oil Cure consisted of a caustic paste of clay, glycerin, salicyclic acid and oil of wintergreen; a mixture of cathartics for internal use; a vaseline preparation; and the “soothing” oil itself, which was comprised of cottonseed oil with an infusion of vegetable matter. Though touted as successful in 82% of all cases, the substance was chemically incapable of addressing maladies as simple as mosquito bite. Treatments ranged from $25-35 per month (an incredible sum for the time). However, if a patient chose not to return for treatment, a letter was written urging the patient not to give up and dropping the price to $12.50.

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1906 Polk Directory listing. The next year, the listing was far smaller. The Byes disappeared from the city directory after 1913. (Click on image to view details)

Though he had some medical training, it’s uncertain what kind of a “doctor” the elder Bye was. The secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health, Dr. J. N. Hurty, pronounced that he was unable to find any information concerning the numerous medical societies to which Bye Sr. claimed to belong. However, it’s certain that he was an 1896 graduate of the American Medical School of Indianapolis. It’s most likely that he attained only a Doctor of Dentistry, yet a multitude of diplomas adorned the walls of Dr. D.M. Bye’s office.

The elder Bye also set himself up as a pastor, founding a small congregation that was largely populated with his own patients.  Though seen in the community as kindly and unpretentious, one journalist called Bye out, stating “He swindles the credulous patients who are misled by his religious pretenses, contributing a tithe of the blood-money to his private church.”

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Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The youngest Dr. Bye, Benjamin, expanded the business by positioning himself in public service leaflets as an expert and protector of the vulnerable — warning patients against quackery in the cancer cure business, and opening a “Sanatorium” (using various spellings of that word). A copy of the informational pamphlet, Relief From Pain in the Indiana Historical Society collections offers 14 pages of testimonials from “cured” patients from across the country. Strangely, none of the testimonials are from Indianapolis patients and all of the testimonials from doctors and chemists omit the professionals’ names.

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From Relief From Pain by B. F. Bye

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The downtown office of B.F. Bye, as presented in advertisements and circulars, did not exist.

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The actual residence, offices and laboratories of B.F. Bye. (The tall building behind the house is not associated with the property.)

The Bye Sanatorium was yet another fiction. Local patients were usually handed their remedies and sent home to self medicate (under the guise of helping them save money). Patients who were seen in Dr. B.F. Bye’s office, would rest in a nearby park after treatment, evidence of the caustic “curative” paste soaking through their bandages (an image described by the great quackbuster and Indianapolis native, Morris Fishbein, in Pope Brock’s book, Charlatan… but that is perhaps another story.) Those patients who did come from out of town were put up in boarding houses for the duration of their treatments. However the largest percentage of Bye business was done by mail order. Judging from the high quality of the pamphlets and the quantity of advertisements, the business must have been very lucrative.

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An almost full-page ad taken out in another city’s newspaper. The mail order diagnoses and treatments were the largest part of the business.

Real trouble came to the Bye enterprise in 1905 when the national weekly magazine, Collier’s, began a pioneering series of articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams entitled, The Great American Fraud. In the series, Adams exposed the patent medicine industry across the US, all the way back to Benjamin Franklin’s mother-in-law and her infamous ointment for “The Itch.”

In the series, Collier’s outed the entire Bye enterprise as “completely fraudulent” and called them “cancer vampires.” A subsequent investigation by the American Medical Association resulted in a number of news and professional organizations publicly admonishing the Byes, culminating in a 1909 fraud order by the US Attorney General. As a result, the business was denied the use of the US mails by the office of the Postmaster General.

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Collier’s, a national weekly magazine

Despite the setback, it’s obvious that the Bye boys didn’t go out of business immediately. Indianapolis directories list the Drs. Bye and their businesses through the year 1913. In 1914, both men disappeared from the Indianapolis directory. It is unknown at this time if they finally met with justice or simply changed names and moved to another location.

3 responses to “Friday Favorite: The Dubious Drs. Bye”

  1. Tom says:

    Another amazing story you’ve unearthed, Lisa. Thanks for sharing!

    We like to complain about how over regulated we are, but it’s often people like the Bye family and their actions that culminate in so much of the regulation we must endure.

  2. Don Lawellin says:

    Lisa,
    I enjoyed your article about the Bye’s. I came across it researching Benjamin F. Bye. It so happens through circumstance that I am in possession of the dubious doctor’s Medical Officer’s Sword as well as his fake diploma from the St. Luke’s hospital. My father in law was a pre-med advisor at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas and a collector of all things “quackery”. He obtained these items at an auction held by decendents of Dr. Bye in Kansas City. Always interesting!

  3. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Don, that IS fascinating! Please let me know if you’d ever care to share photos of those items. I’ve been contacted by two people who are researching medical quackery and I know they’d love to see/hear all you’ve learned about the Byes. Do you, perchance, know what happened to Dr. Bye after his disappearance from Indy in 1914?

    Thanks for sharing!

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