Medical Quackery in the Early 20th Century

The Science Museum of Minnesota, in St Paul, features an exhibit titled “Museum of Quackery and Medical Frauds” that presents examples of unsafe, ineffective and dishonest medical devices. In the early 1900s, the medical industry was completely unregulated, and manufacturers or fake doctors were free to use any and all untested ingredients and to make all sorts of outrageous and false claims about what their “treatments” could do. Some were based on mistakes or misunderstandings of science, and many were intentionally dishonest and fraudulent.  Most quack devices were based on electricity, magnetism or radioactivity, which were then only recent scientific discoveries and were viewed as ultra-modern sources of energy and vitality.

The signage explains how to use critical thinking skills to detect fraudulent claims, and demonstrates the history of medical quackery that eventually led to the modern FDA which was specifically formed to regulate drugs and treatments.

Here are photos of some of the items on display, and a brief description.

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Ellis Micro-Dynameter

Introduced in the 1930s, Dynameter machines used a copper plate to pass a current of electricity through the patient’s skin. By measuring changes in this current, practitioners claimed to be able to detect and diagnose a variety of diseases inside the body. There was of course no scientific basis for this—and in many of these machines there was no actual electrical connection between the copper plate and the internal wiring.

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Electro-Metabograph

Designed in the 1920s, the Electro-Metabograph was based on another scientific wonder of the time—radio waves. It would use a radio tuner to select specific frequencies which were supposed to cure a wide variety of diseases. Many of these machines, however, did not actually contain any radio transmitting equipment, and the whole idea behind them was wrong anyway.

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Radia-Magnet Belt

This 1920s device contained a magnet which was supposed to revitalize the body’s energy and cure all sorts of complaints. In reality, it did nothing at all. Modern versions of this device include “magnetic bracelets” and “magnetic socks”, in a newer version of an old fraud.

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Roger’s Vitalator Violet Ray

Based on an idea put out by inventor Nikola Tesla (Tesla is still a favorite with quacks and cranks), the Vitalator produced an electric current and some purple light, which was then focused onto various body parts to cure aches and pains. 

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Sears and Roebuck Medical Battery

Medical quackery most often invokes the image of phony doctors selling dangerous concoctions that they made up in their basement, but the reality is that many of these quack devices were made and sold by respectable companies who sincerely believed that they worked. This “Medical Battery” was made for the Sears Company. It was supposed to work by running electrical currents through various parts of the body.

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Electreat

The Electreat was essentially a vibrator wand that was used to massage sore or tired muscles, with the added feature of passing a mild electric current through the body. Unlike most manufacturers, the makers of the Electreat did not make any outrageous claims about what it could do, and when the FDA banned electricity-based medical machines in the 1940s, the Electreat was one of the few which were not affected. It did not actually “treat” any disease, though.

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Abrams Oscilloclast

California doctor Albert Abrams produced two quack machines during the 1920s. The first was called the Dynomizer. He claimed that he could use it to pass a current of electricity through a patient’s skin—or through a drop of the patient;s blood, or even through a sample of the patient’s handwriting—and diagnose a wide variety of ailments from diabetes to syphilis. This was followed by the Oscilloclast, which was specifically intended to diagnose cancer and then treat and cure it. 

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Thompson-Plaster Electrical Cabinet

Sold in the 1910s and 1920s, the Thompson-Plaster machine was supposed to emit “violet rays” which could penetrate the body and be used to treat internal diseases. Most versions combined this with an electrical current. 

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Orgone Shooting Box

The “Shooting Box” was based on the quack idea of the “orgone”, which was supposed to be a mysterious “universal life energy”. Orgone Boxes were supposed to collect these unknown particles and then shoot them into the body as a cure for diseases. The whole thing was pseudo-scientific baloney, and most of the “collectors” were just empty wooden boxes.

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Revigator

Popular in the 1930s, the Revigator was a simple ceramic pot which was lined on the inside with uranium and radium. It was intended to produce radioactive water at home, which was supposed to “restore the energy” as well as treat a variety of illnesses. All it really did was cause radiation sickness and cancer.

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Kellogg Vibrating Chair

Dr John Harvey Kellogg ran a health spa in Michigan which was based around his odd and unusual ideas about health. He is best-known for inventing corn flakes cereal (which were intended as a bland food that would discourage masturbation). Another of his contraptions was the vibrating chair, which was supposed to stimulate the colon and encourage defecation. 

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Radithor

Radithor was, simply, radium dissolved in water. It was sold as a treatment for everything from impotence to tiredness. It was manufactured by the Bailey radium Laboratories company. The concoction became the center of one of the most famous medical cases of the 1930s. Steel industry magnate and socialite Eben Byers was a steady customer, drinking several bottles of Radithor a day for a period of years. As a result, Byers’ body was riddled with cancer—his teeth fell out, his entire lower jaw had to be surgically removed, and there were holes in his skull. When Byers died in 1932 his body was so radioactive that it had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin. His spectacular case prompted the Federal Trade Commission to order Bailey to stop selling Radithor, and led to to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration shortly later.

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2 thoughts on “Medical Quackery in the Early 20th Century”

  1. This kind of quackery continues to this day; you are just no longer allowed to market it as medicine or medical advice. I nowadays cheerfully leave it to Darwin to sort out. 🙂

    1. Indeed, we may wonder why people were so awfully stupid way back then–and then we look around today and see people trying to cure covid with horse dewormer.

      Nothing has changed. Humans are still just as stupid and gullible as we always have been.

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