The Miracle Cure


The unedifying story of the German doctor who prescribed two bottles of the mysterious Formula No9 to treat a syphilitic railwayman, and in doing so brought scandal to Harley Street

Words: Tom Hughes

“Harley Street is long and narrow and many tragedies occur or are foretold within it,” wrote Dr Hugo Romanis, one mid-20th century physician in residence therein. Long the home to the mandarins of medicine, the Harley Street Medical Area of today offers access to over 5,000 practitioners, small clinics and full scale hospitals, covering over 200 specialisms: a truly world class medical enclave. 

The journalistic use of ‘Harley Street’ as a metonym for the greater medical community was a late Victorian or Edwardian invention. The first physicians began to move in to the terraced Georgian residential mansions in the early 19th century. The subject for this unedifying little essay, Dr Joseph Kahn, arrived in the early 1850s. He resided at 17 Harley Street, on the lower end, west side. The building is still in medical use today, long since Dr Kahn stealthily decamped from this green and pleasant land, having been denounced as the “Chief of Quacks”.

Continental eminence
Kahn arrived from Germany about 1850, boasting of his continental eminence and citing degrees from many “imperial universities”. He was in his thirties when he opened his Grand Anatomical Museum on Oxford Street. For a shilling, visitors could gaze upon some 500 representations of the human form, male and female, normal and abnormal, beautiful and monstrous. But more than putting on a simple freak show, Kahn attracted the greatest attention and no small amount of censure for his ‘private rooms’. Ostensibly intended for physicians only, these inner chambers contained models of the sexual organs. There were also plaster forms displaying the physical ravages of various venereal diseases. Despite the supposed restricted entry, if a punter paid his bob, no one stopped him. Even women were seen visiting.

The museum was so successful that Kahn had to find more space. A new 1,000-model collection went on view in the Magnificent Anatomical Museum on Coventry Street at the top of the Haymarket. Kahn was by now living in the highest style on Harley Street. His ubiquitous ‘coach and pair’ driven by a liveried coachman trotted between home and ‘shop’ and infuriated his orthodox medical neighbours. The postman knocked at 17 Harley Street every day with another sack of orders for Kahn’s popular new tome, The Philosophy of Marriage, which promised readers all they could want to know about “the structure and functions of the organs concerned in the fulfilment of the physical obligations of the married state; and the consequences arising from excesses”. The text was accompanied, of course, by the finest woodcut illustrations.

  • "When he returned to Harley Street to complain, he was threatened by the doctor with exposure. Wouldn’t his railway superiors be interested to know they employed a man with such evil habits?"

A touch of the clap
In what spare time he had available, Dr Kahn deigned to open his Marylebone surgery to a select few patients. In 1857, a young man with a good position with one of the railways called upon Dr Kahn. Having visited the museum, what he had seen in the private room had shaken him to the core. He had a touch of “the clap”, he said, and was desperate for a cure. After a physical examination, a swab and a look under the microscope, Dr Kahn diagnosed “spermatorrhea” and informed the distraught patient, “Your brains are passing out into your water, and you will die.” He scrawled out a prescription which the man was to give to the doctor’s assistant. “You go home now, get into a room, and never stir out for eight-and-twenty weeks; and take three times a day a teaspoonful of the medicine.” What of his employment, the shaken patient asked. “You will lose your life if you do not do it.” 

On his way out, Kahn thought of one more thing: at all costs, avoid pork. The assistant then came in with two boxes of bottles, the contents identified only as Formula No.9. The fee was a hefty 50 quid. 

At some stage in this marathon cure, the fellow came to the conclusion that he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, his eyesight was “darkening”. When he returned to Harley Street to complain, he was threatened by the doctor with exposure. Wouldn’t his railway superiors be interested to know 
they employed a man with such evil habits?

A second opinion
The wretched man sought a second opinion and the police were brought in. Joseph Kahn (he was not allowed to use the title ‘doctor’) was charged in the old Bloomsbury County Court with fraud and threats with menaces. The prosecutor labelled Kahn a gentlemen who made a living preying upon “sexual hypochondriacs” and “reducing them to such a state of alarm as to be enabled to act upon their credulity”. Employing threats, he had wrested thousands of pounds from clergymen and other young men who came to him with shameful diseases. If any patient contested the fees, there would be retribution. If the patient was supposed to be a married man, he would be charged with venereal disease; and if not, he would be charged with masturbation.

The lead accuser, to minimise his embarrassment, was allowed to write his name and that of his employer on a slip of paper then passed to the judge. What he could not control were the guffaws from the public gallery amazed at the man’s gullibility. He agreed to spend 28 weeks in a room? What was he thinking? Especially amusing was Kahn’s instruction that the patient use a bar of rough yellow soap and wash “the affected area” repeatedly. The witness told the court that when he complained that there’d been no improvement and he’d like his money back, he was told, “If you dare ask for that, I shall accuse you of masturbation.” 

Heart-shaped bottle

Running astray
Under cross-examination, the railway clerk denied that he had been put up to this by the circling critics of Dr Kahn. He really did have that particular medical complaint, he said, admitting “I do as a good many men do; I run astray sometimes.”

Several physicians testified that the Kahn treatments were totally bogus. Dr William Acton, a respected physician in this developing field, testified that he had himself treated the sufferer and had him cured in three weeks!

Kahn was able to deflect most of the blame onto his “assistant,” who had, of course, long since been sacked and could not be found anywhere. The prosecutors wailed at such a “discreditable stratagem” but the judge could do no more than severely chastise Kahn for allowing such “rascally conduct” in his surgery. He fined him 20 pounds.

Fits of morality
The public was in the midst of what Macaulay called one of its “periodical fits of morality”. The Lancet, which had earlier praised Kahn’s museum as informative now denounced it as a “den of obscenity” and the models were “totally unfit for general exhibition”. The Lancet also charged that “anyone who is fool enough” to seek the doctor’s advice in Harley Street “richly deserves the contemptuous suspicion of his being either morally or physically diseased”. 

Kahn left London in 1858 although his museum remained in operation for several more years, despite numerous attempts to close it under the newly enacted obscenity laws. According to the Wellcome Institute, the last of Kahn’s anatomical curiosities were destroyed in 1873.

Ironically, Kahn’s digs in Harley Street were later occupied by Dr Acton, his erstwhile courtroom nemesis. Acton, who died at 17 Harley Street in 1875, was the leading Victorian specialist in the human sexual anatomy. He is most remembered today, however, for his oft-quoted and equally derided conclusion that “The majority of women—and happily for them—are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.” The success of Kahn’s museum suggested otherwise.