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US Museum Showcases Medical Quackery - 2001-08-22


There is an old saying that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. A small museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota, seems to support that saying. The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices contains 200 years worth of machines and gadgets falsely claiming to have various health benefits.

Just inside the door of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices is a bowl-shaped, metal piece of headwear hanging over a chair. For a couple of dollars, you are invited to sit in the chair, fit the headpiece snuggly around your scalp, and let the Psychograph measure the bumps of your skull to determine your personality and character traits. Associate curator James Satter says this machine from the early 1900s revolutionized the short-lived field of phrenology.

"The Psychograph actually made phrenology mechanized and automatic," explained Mr. Satter. "Before this was built, for a hundred years you could see a phrenologist and they would rest their hands on your head. That took about an hour to do a thorough reading. The Psychograph does it in five minutes."

But like everything else in this museum, the Psychograph is useless, except for entertainment. Museum founder and curator Bob McCoy says the Psychograph was the first piece in his large collection of ill-advised medical devices.

Another, from the 1920s, is the Spectro-Chrome. He described the device as he turned it on: "A spotlight inside the box, a 300-watt bulb, shines behind these different glass cells. The patient sits in front of this in the dark, facing north, under certain moon phases, in the nude. The green I am focusing on you is for stomach problems, the red is for heart and blood problems. The guy sold 10,000 of these," he said.

Losing hair? In the 1930s the makers of the Xervac tried to convince people that hair loss was the result of clogged pores on the scalp. "It is white, metal and you turn it on," said Mr. McCoy, describing the Xervac. " There is a vacuum pump and an air pump. I put this dome on my head and it creates a vacuum to suck the debris out of my pores and then alternates air pressure to improve circulation."

Some machines do little more than make a lot of noise and vibration. James Satter shows us the Vibratory Chair. "One of the things it is supposed to do is prevent constipation. It is also supposed to get rid of headaches and backaches. It probably causes them," he said.

One device from the 1970s appears to be nothing more than a square piece of wall tile with an electrical cord attached. Mr. McCoy says you are supposed to slip it under your mattress, and "when you plug this in, supposedly it is supposed to regenerate missing organs, regrow missing limbs, cures high blood pressure, brain tumors, hemorrhoids, cancer, whatever you have got, the Solarama Ned Board will cure you. In 1976, 150,000 of your friends, relatives and neighbors bought these by mail for $150 apiece."

Some of the devices took advantage of the public's fascination with new technology and discoveries. There is an entire case full of low-grade radioactive ore, water, and other items that in the early 1900s promised cures for arthritis pain and variety of other ailments.

Several devices claimed to work by radio waves or electric current. The Electro-metabograph promised to treat emotional states like jealousy and impatience while the user held his or her hand on a metal plate. Another machine, the Ruth Round Radio Therapy Machine, required the user to put a small dab of saliva on a metal sensor. Mr. McCoy offered to demonstrate it. "I am going to turn on this long-distance transmitter and set it for the same frequency as your saliva. Turn on this healing machine that will send healing rays by radio. No matter where you were, these rays would catch up with you and cure you," he said.

U.S. laws are supposed to prevent these sorts of false medical claims today, but Mr. McCoy's collection suggests people can still buy useless medical gadgets, such as a 1996 device called the Stimulator. He explains it's a "gas-grill igniter masquerading as a medical device. Now hold this against the back of your hand. Hear that clicking? It sends a little bit of electricity through your body." It is supposed to cure headaches, back pain, arthritis, stress and several other ailments.

Mr. McCoy says these devices tell him a lot about human nature, about "how gullible people are. People come in here and are still convinced of some of these goofy things today."

Most of the machines here are harmless, though Mr. McCoy says they may be dangerous because some people probably put enough faith in their claims to avoid seeking needed care from a doctor.