Table of Contents
Introduction: Here a Quack, There a Quack
1 Quackery: Common Questions and Their Answers
2 Mechanical: Simple Machines to Set You Straight
3 Magnetism: The Curative Magic of Magnets
4 Electricity: Flipping the Switch to Good Health
5 Radionics: Albert Abrams, Ruth Drown, and the Miracle of Vibrations
6 Radium: Good for What Ails You
7 Rays: Let the Sun Shine In
8 Psychology: Use Your Head—The Bumpy History of Phrenology
9 Sensory: Devices to Clear Your Head
10 Beauty: From Quack Straps to Nip & Tuck
11 Sex: Sex ex Machina
You don’t have to go far these days to find ads for devices that look . . . questionable. Many of these so-called cures claim to have special metals or energies. Others, supposedly, will shock, rattle, or shake you to better health. Many of these devices are sold by the mail, via the Internet, or at special outlets by people who may or may not be able to explain how in the world these contraptions actually work.
Quackery, however, is nothing new. Over the years people have spent countless amounts of money on questionable medical devices to treat everything from arthritis to baldness to cancer. Many of these gadgets use special lights, heat, vibrations, metals, shockers, rollers, shakers, radio waves, or chemicals to cure illnesses. Some machines look technologically sophisticated on the outside, while some look amazingly simple. A few treat only one or two symptoms, but others supposedly cure just about everything. It’s little surprise that many so-called devices that sound too good to be true actually are too good to be true.
People have been concerned about fraudulent or unethical physicians since ancient times. After all, the Hippocratic oath, which discusses the importance of honesty in medicine, dates back to the fifth century B.C. In the famous oath, Hippocrates wrote, “The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of my patients according to my ability and judgment. . . . Whatsoever house I enter, there will I go for the benefit of the sick.” But, not everyone heeds those words.
Professional medical associations and universities were in place during the Middle Ages when concern over medical standards continued. The term “quack”—meaning someone who pretends to be a physician or who claims to have medical knowledge that they don’t really possess—dates as far back as the 1600s. A wide assortment of misguided or misleading medical practitioners have helped to keep the term in use ever since. The term “quackery,” meanwhile, includes any objects or practices used by a quack. Because medical information has increased substantially over the centuries, medical assumptions and practices considered valid in the past are now considered “quackery.”
Quackery Comes to America
In the eighteenth century, quack medical treatments traveled from Europe to North America, as many colonists ordered bottled elixirs, oils, tonics, or special pills intended to cure anything from arthritis to rheumatism. By today’s standards, many of these treatments were scientifically contestable. Soon after the American Revolution, inventors in the United States could patent their devices—including inventions that turned out to be quack medical devices. One of the best remembered examples of this concerned Connecticut physician Elisha Perkins, who received a U.S. patent in 1796 for his “Metallic Tractors.” The Perkins tractors were two rods made of different metals to treat patients through the dubious effects of “animal magnetism.” The Tractors were popular at first, and Perkins seems to have been sincere in his belief that his device really worked.
Physicians continued to grow concerned about the reputation of the medical profession and questioned the benefits of generations-old treatments, such as bloodletting, in which diseases were “cured” by removing significant amounts of the patient’s blood. Meanwhile, people continued to develop new ideas about how people might be treated. For example, in 1810 Samuel Friedrich Hahnemann introduced homeopathy, which suggested that patients can be treated using highly diluted quantities of a substance. Other popular treatments involved a combination of mesmerism and magnets. Over the years, a parade of magnetic devices came onto the market claiming to improve physical strength, stamina, and resistance to disease. Many magnetic devices were designed as apparel, including magnetic belts and magnetic shoe insoles.
In the nineteenth century, many physicians in the United States were trained through apprenticeships instead of at medical schools. Because of this, patients did not necessarily expect their doctors to have formal credentials. Instead they relied on a sense of trust—of which numerous quacks and nostrums took advantage. Many charlatans advertised their products readily and sold them through the mail. Others traveled from town to town selling so-called medicines with exotic cures. Tricks of the trade became well known. They included bold advertisements making false statements about the effectiveness of a treatment, claims that cures included a secret ingredient (perhaps known only to Native Americans or in the Orient), or the practice of hiring an assistant who pretended to have been cured by the treatment.
Other quacks, meanwhile, sold counterfeit versions of legitimate medicines. An often overlooked consequence of quackery is that charlatans who make false claims about their remedies scare legitimate scientists from looking seriously into any treatment that reminds them of the work of a well-known quack. In addition to harming patients, quackery can hinder beneficial advancements in medicine.
Early Attempts to Stop Quackery
In the United States, the movement against quacks was aided by the formation of the American Medical Association in 1847. (Today the AMA is the largest and most active medical organization in the world.) By the 1880s, large numbers of charlatans and other wanna-be doctors could purchase fraudulent medical degrees from one of several “diploma mills” without ever attending a day of medical school. Putting an end to diploma mills was one of the AMA’s objectives during the early twentieth century.
During the late nineteenth century, numerous people visited health spas or “sanitariums.” John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, established one of the most famous sanitariums of this period. Patients who visited his sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, would exercise, get fresh air, eat special diets, and use “mechanotherapy” devices to improve their health. A special vibratory chair, for example, was designed to prevent constipation—by rapidly shaking the patient up and down! With “mechanotherapy,” patients were supposed to use devices to maintain their health even if they weren’t sick.
In addition to trying to improve their physical health, many early Americans consulted phrenologists who would assess their “mental constitution” by measuring the size and shape of a person’s head. Although phrenologists initially did not use devices, that changed in 1905 when Henry C. Lavery invented the Psycograph, which gives personality printouts based on the size and shape of a person’s head.
Beginning in the 1870s, a number of states began to pass general food safety laws, but most of these laws did not effectively prevent the sale of harmful or worthless “medicines,” including Hunt’s Remedy for liver and kidney troubles, and Lydia Pinkham’s syrup for women. By 1906, more than 100 food and drug bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress. Dr. Harvey Wiley, chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, was one of the most active proponents for federal laws governing medical products and further research into the safety of consumable goods. Wiley’s efforts helped lead to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which prohibited the movement of adulterated foods and drugs in interstate commerce and required honest food labeling. This was a major strike against questionable medicines.
Public concern over these issues was evident in an influential series of articles that Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote forCollier’s magazine from 1905 to 1907. “The Great American Fraud” was a multi-part exposé that documented the careers of numerous medical fakes who lied about their credentials, made false advertising claims, took advantage of the gullible and the desperate, and often prescribed dangerous medicines containing opium, cocaine, and radium. In the January 13, 1906, installment in the series, Hopkins opened with the following remarks about the desperation of people:
“Incurable disease is one of the strongholds of the patent medicine business. The ideal patron, viewed in the light of profitable business, is the victim of some slow and wasting ailment in which recurrent hope inspires to repeated experiments with any ‘cure’ that offers.”
And in the September 1, 1906, article, Hopkins wrote these poignant words:
“Specializing is the modern tendency in medical practice. Hence the quack, who is but an exaggerated and grotesque imitation of the regular practitioner, smells money in devoting himself to specific fields of endeavor. Sedulously he perfects himself in his own department; not by acquiring knowledge of the nature and treatment of diseases, indeed, but by studying how most effectively to enmesh the sufferer from a certain class of ailments in the net of his specious promises.”
The FDA and the Rise of Questionable Medical Devices
The early twentieth century saw the rapid rise of questionable medical practitioners who used devices instead of consumable medicines. This was a time when the United States experienced the success of automobiles, radios, and electric lights. Many writers dreamed of utopian futures, in which technology made the world spotless, healthy, and problem-free. The discoveries of X rays and radium during the 1890s added to this excitement about the promise of new devices that used radiation to treat diseases—although a number of these new treatments turned out to be life-threatening.
As Americans’ faith in new technology and new forms of energy grew, self-styled medical inventors capitalized on the public’s optimism. Many families purchased vibratory belts intended to shake off extra pounds, or hand-held electric or ultraviolet-ray devices to boost fitness levels or cure just about everything. One of the most successful charlatans of this period was Albert Abrams, who the AMA branded the “King of Quackery.” Covered with knobs, switches, and dials, Abrams’s furniture-size machines apparently could diagnose and cure just about anything. Though impressive-looking from the outside, these devices were essentially hollow on the inside—and utterly worthless.
The federal government’s authority to regulate medical devices grew in 1928 when Congress authorized the Food, Drug and Insecticide Administration to work with the Pure Food and Drug Act. In 1931 the unit’s name changed to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA had the power to inspect factories, scientifically test foods and drugs, and disseminate legal advice to prevent violations. The FDA’s ability to police medical devices increased in 1938 with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which defined a medical device as “an instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent, or other similar article that is intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease.” This covered a lot of territory.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act had the following effects:
- Cosmetic and therapeutic devices are regulated by the FDA.
- Drug manufacturers must provide scientific proof that new products are safe to use before putting them on the market.
- Companies cannot “misbrand” products with false or inaccurate labels.
- The FDA has the authority to inspect factories that produce medical
- Most drugs and certain medical devices must be approved by the FDA.
- The FDA has the authority to seize illegal medical devices and bring charges against those involved.
One of the first devices the FDA investigated was the Spectrochrome. Invented in 1938 by “Doctor” Dinshah Ghadiali, the Spectrochrome projected different colored lights, each intended to treat a particular ailment or strengthen the body in a particular way. But all of the colors of the Spectrochrome were equally ineffective, and Ghadiali was found guilty of fraud when he went on trail. One of the most famous devices outlawed by the FDA was the Orgone Energy Accumulator. Invented in 1940 by noted psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, this complicated-looking device supposedly used an undetectable form of energy to improve health. But the power of Orgone couldn’t prevent Reich from going to prison for contempt in 1956—or from dying there a year later.
Over the years, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act has been amended to further regulate medical devices. For example, in 1976 Congress amended the act to require that new medical devices be proven safe and effective before going on the market. Previously, the law had been limited to action against hazardous or falsely represented devices after they went on sale. In 1990, the law was again amended with the Safe Medical Device Act, requiring medical facilities and product distributors to report to the FDA the number of deaths, serious illnesses, and series injuries related to medical devices. Over the years, other nations have adopted similar laws to stop dangerous medicines and medical devices from reaching the public.
The maximum fine for individuals who violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is now $100,000 per offense for conviction of a felony or of a misdemeanor resulting in death. For corporations, the maximum fines are twice the amounts as for individuals. In some instances, fines have been as high as $10 million for multiple offenders. In spite of these efforts, experts estimate that each year Americans spend $100 million on untested or quack medical cures that will not help them at all, and in some cases might worsen their condition.
Even though most quack devices eventually go off the market, many of these gadgets seem to reappear in one form or another a generation later, as there always seems to be plenty of new questionable medical devices to take the place of those that have been discredited.
©2000 by Bob McCoy
The author of Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices is the founder and curator of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis. This is the nation’s largest public display of “quack” medical devices and was founded in 1987. Mr. McCoy’s past occupations include soap salesman, mill steel salesman, and family planning clinic administrator. He is a hobby printer, licensed humanist minister, and a member of the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. It is as a skeptic that McCoy has worked to expose health fraud, and the museum is an entertaining and informative means of doing just that. He has been awarded the Special Citizenship award from the FDA for his work in exposing health fraud. McCoy is married with three grown children and five grandchildren.
“A stunning testament to the myriad ways people have tried to make money off the eternal ills of humankind.”
—New York Times
“Snake oil salesmen, beware!”
“The country’s largest assemblage of medical bunkum on display to the public . . . Bob McCoy is a barker for common sense in a carnival of medical quackery.”
—American Medical Association News
“An assortment of medical devices that will at once amaze, entertain, and inform you!”
—Late Night with David Letterman
“P.T. Barnum once said there’s a sucker born every minute. Bob McCoy would quickly add there’s a quack born every hour to take advantage of that.”
—Good Morning America
“If you’re ill (curator) Robert McCoy just might have a machine designed to make you better. Unfortunately, it probably won’t work.”
“You should have your head examined!”
—The Today Show
“Whether you want to regrow hair or regenerate a limb, the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices has something to heal all buffoons.”
“The dim sum of dubious medical parts from the early 18th century to the present.”
—Chicago Sun Times
“Bob McCoy’s museum boasts a charlatan’s web of medical chicanery . . . [a] monument to medical mountebankery . . .”
“A lively history of quackery . . . a bizarre and enthusiastic book, perfect for anyone who savors the intersection of human folly and weird science.”
“Remedies like radium suppositories and the thermal prostatic warmer may have been discredited by science, but in the name of preserving these and other artifacts of American hucksterism, Bob McCoy has written Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices , compiling the stories behind the bunco medical gadgets housed in his Minneapolis museum.”
“The profuse illustrations—from photographs of actual devices to original advertisements—help make this an informative and entertaining reading journey.”
—The Bloomsbury Review
“Just what the doctor ordered!”
—Los Angeles Daily News
“McCoy, a natural-born story teller, has combined his extensive historical knowledge of medical devices with his pleasing narrative style and has written the best book I have ever seen on the fascinating field of black box quackery . . . . McCoy’s book both entertains and educates its readers as it provides insight into the nature of quackery itself and then explores different kinds of devices . . . McCoy’s book provides the substance that people need to fill the mental voids to which quacks continue to appeal. This splendid book belongs in the library of every health-conscious consumer.”
—The National Council for Reliable Health Information
“If ever I get to Minneapolis, McCoy’s museum will be my first stop; until then his book will have to do, and his book is a treat . . . It is profusely illustrated, and its layout and typography imitate the age of some of the quackery . . . If people will read Quack! they will learn, and more importantly, they will laugh.”