The relationship between a doctor and patient is a sacred trust, built on the understanding that one holds the well-being of the other in their hands. But what happens when a patient unknowingly sees a fake doctor? Sometimes, it's all too easy to con trusting patients into thinking you're a physician, especially when dealing with someone sick, poor, or desperate.
The "physicians" on this list all took advantage of their patients in some way, many through directly caring for people when they had no training, others by acting as a guru or expert. Some invented cures that didn't work, others directly slayed people through their gross incompetence and negligence. All of them have either been imprisoned, passed, or renounced for their malicious ways.
Here are the most blatant instances of quack doctors and doctor conmen pretending to be real. Read on to learn who they are, what they did, and what happened to them as a result of their actions.
Swiss physician and chemist Leander Tomarkin gained worldwide fame for his development of Antimicrobum, a cure for pneumonia, as well as cures for typhus, tuberculosis, meningitis, and malaria. He was considered so brilliant that he became the personal physician to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and he counted no less than Albert Einstein as a patron.
Except Tomarkin wasn’t a physician or chemist, invented nothing, and was skilled at nothing more than being an imposter.
Made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 film, Catch Me if You Can, Frank Abagnale spent the better part of his youth as a con artist, pretending to be a pilot, federal agent, and a lawyer. Among his fake identities was a doctor named Frank Williams. He impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital for nearly a year, and he only left when he realized the great burden he’d put on himself treating children with no training. Even when a baby nearly perished under his “care,” nobody figured him out. Abagnale was eventually captured, and after a series of escape shenanigans, went legitimate as a security consultant.
Even without medical fraud, William Hamman’s life would have been the stuff of legend — a seasoned commercial pilot Hamman was also an ace heart surgeon who spoke at conferences around the world. But the medical fraud puts it over the top, since Hamman had virtually no medical training, other than a few years at med school. He was able to keep the dual careers going for 15 years, teaching actual surgeons about patient safety and new techniques in surgery, until he was busted for not having any credentials when he applied for a grant.
Shockingly, the American Medical Association allowed Hamman to continue lecturing to doctors, but only if he made it clear he wasn’t a doctor. However, pressure from other (real) doctors forced him to stop.
A charming doctor with a tragic past, Eric Perteet was dropped off by his wife every day at the Atlanta ER where he worked saving lives. One day, when he didn’t check in with her, his wife called the ER to make sure he was okay. Nobody there had an answer for her, because he didn’t work there.
As it turned out, Perteet had been processed the night before, with a Scotch-taped badge and fake credentials. The hospital maintained he’d never had any contact with patients, so we’re left with a guy literally just wandering around pretending to be a doctor.
Barnbaum spent 10 years working as a legitimate pharmacist — until he was taken in for fraud in 1976. After that, he changed his name to Dr. Gerald Barnes, moved to California, and decided he was an orthopedic surgeon. The hoax lasted a year, until a patient showed up at Barnbaum’s “practice” complaining of symptoms consistent with uncontrolled diabetes. Barnbaum told him to go home and stop eating candy, which the patient did — but only because he passed two days later.
Barnbaum served 18 months in prison, then went right back to being a fake doctor. He was taken in again, and once again went back to being a fake doctor. After being taken in again, he escaped from a prison van, and became a fake doctor on the lam. He was caught soon after.
Born in Hungary in 1920, Karoly Hajdu led a fascinating life, first funneling money to Hungarian anti-Communists, then promptly being exposed as a thief and going to prison. Afterward, Hajdu became a hit in upper crust British society for writing advice columns, then was again arrested, this time for taking out a loan with no ability to pay it back.
Upon release, he adopted another guise — Charlotte Bach. While Karoly Hajdu was a man, Bach was a woman — and a research scientist, to boot. Bach’s fringe theories on evolution caught on with medical fringe types, and despite having no scientific training, she became a self-styled expert on what she called “human ethology” — a deeply held biological urge to become the opposite sex from what you’re assigned at birth. Bach passed in 1981, never having accumulated enough evidence to support any of her theories.
Few things strike as much fear into the hearts of humankind as a fake dentist. But that’s exactly what Chicago resident Francisco Rendon was, running an “office” in a body shop, full of random tools and pills, a trash can for a sink, and a leather love seat standing in for an examination chair. Rendon claimed he had a dental license from Mexico, but Chicago police disagreed and busted him in 2010.
Sharma was so successful as a dentist in London that she had “BDS” as the initials on the license on her Mercedes. She earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, operated on patients at seven different hospitals, and worked with senior dentists on traumatic cases. But Sharma was a total fraud. She was investigated by England’s National Health Service after a colleague rightly questioned her skills and credentials. She pleaded guilty of fraud and went to prison.
Less a real person and more a spiritual manifestation, “Dr. Fritz” is a hypothetical German doctor channeled by Brazilian “psychic surgeons.” He is said to have possessed the souls of these healers as they performed miracles on patients in need. This entire enterprise is a sham, though. Psychic surgery is a magician’s trick designed to make you think someone is pulling your guts out. While “Dr. Fritz,” is said to have been slain in the final days of WWI, there is no evidence to prove he ever existed.
Inventor Royal Raymond Rife didn’t claim to be a doctor, per se, but his quack inventions have been embraced by numerous fake physicians. Rife invented a working high-intensity microscope lamp in the late-'20s, and he later claimed to have developed a number of devices meant to cure deadly diseases. Among these was a “beam ray” that Rife said could heal people of cancer.
While Rife passed in 1971, his successors have claimed that the beam ray truly works, and he was suppressed by the medical establishment in a massive conspiracy. Several unlicensed doctors have been convicted of felony charges for using “Rife devices” to pretend to cure cancer and HIV — and alternative medicine proponents continue to stump for his work today.
Romand lived the life of a healer, working for the World Health Organization, specializing in curing heart disease. Or at least that’s the life he pretended to lead. In the real world, Romand was a grifter who dropped out of medical school after a year, and just spent time hanging out at conferences, hobnobbing with real doctors. To support his nearly two decades of scamming, he ran a fake investment scheme, bilking thousands of dollars from unsuspecting victims.
Things got dark when, needing to pay back his mistress, he slayed his wife with a rolling pin, then shot his children in the head, shot his parents and their dog, then tried to slay the mistress, failed at that, tried to take his own life, failed at that, and was taken in by authorities and given life in prison.
Going by the name “Duchess,” Morris perpetrated a massive fraud by pretending to be a plastic surgeon. Preying on trans women who wanted to enhance their curves (Morris was also trans), Duchess would show up at their homes with scrubs and a stethoscope, looking for all the world like a doctor. But she seriously wasn’t, since she would then inject these poor victims with a mix of Fix-a-Flat, rubber cement, mineral oil, and caulk.
As if that wasn’t awful enough, she closed their wounds using superglue and cotton balls. Morris was eventually arrested for slaying one woman and destroying the face of another.
At two different bars in Boise, Idaho, in 2009, a “plastic surgeon” with the not-at-all-made-up name of “Berlyn Aussieahshowna” offered free breast exams to two different women. Fooled by her use of actual medical terms, the women consented, and one even exposed her breasts to the “doctor.”
But the number on Aussieahshowna’s business card turned out to be for a plastic surgery center — which contacted the police. It turns out that the “doctor” was named Kristina Ross, and had previously served two years in prison for battery. She was charged with practicing medicine without a license.
Getting surgery to enhance one’s butt is a serious matter best left to the professionals. Ana Josefa Sevilla, a fake doctor busted in Miami for pumping a woman full of anesthetic and operating on her — nearly slaying her in the process — is not one of those professionals.
Fake cosmetic surgery is a serious problem in South Florida, leaving an opening for enterprising grifters with some medical tools to make quick cash. Sevilla was arrested on two counts of practicing medicine without a license.
If Keith Allen Barton was the doctor he claimed to be, he’d have hundreds of physicians on staff at a clinic in Mexico, and have the ability to cure cancer and HIV. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was a grifter who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from unaware patients, and quite possibly caused the passing of at least one girl with HIV who didn’t get proper treatment because Barton was “treating” her. After a sting, he was arrested and sent to prison.
As a primary care physician at Agape Senior Primary Care, Ernest Addo saw over 500 elderly patients in two states, until quitting without notice. Addo wasn’t actually a physician, but he had merely stolen the identity of a friend of his who was. He claimed that he’d practiced medicine in Belize, but given that Belize is not part of the United States, this didn’t make much headway with authorities. He pleaded guilty to fraud, identity theft, and practicing medicine without a license.
The 76-year-old Winikoff posed as a gynecologist and managed to dupe several women into letting him examine them. That’s creepy enough, but the fact that he went door-to-door doing it puts this case squarely in the stratosphere of weird. He molested one woman, then fled when she figured out he wasn’t a doctor. He then found another woman in the same apartment complex, and he ended up fleeing her apartment as well, and he was arrested without incident.
After spending three weeks hanging around an ER pretending to be an emergency physician, Stewart was uncovered when someone realized he didn’t have a badge, or any actual training. He was arrested and put on probation. A few months later, Stewart broke his parole and tried to take a cab to an ER in Tennessee to start up the scam again. A suspicious cabbie turned him in, and Stewart was sent to prison for real. Authorities described him as “a troubled young man.”
Zacardas had a brisk business as a fake psychiatrist in Australia, bilking real clients in need out of real money. After being taken in for that, she started pretending to be a doctor, first giving examinations to her friends, then talking her way into watching surgeries as a fake med student. She was so good at her fakery that she talked her own doctor into promising her a job once she finished med school — which she’d never started. She was finally caught in 2011, and she was sent to prison for a year.