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.