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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 00:11 GMT 01:11 UK
Museum of health madness
By Martin Hutchinson
BBC News Online health staff

Rejuvenator (courtesy of Museum of Questionable Medical Devices)
The MacGregor Rejuvenator: Not entirely successful

"Eat, eat eat - and always stay thin!"

The banner of this pre-war advertisement poster, promising to banish fat without fancy diets or exercise, could come from any age.

However, today's consumer might find the recommended remedy a little harder to swallow.

There are few who would seriously contemplate adding "sanitized tape worms" to the breakfast menu.

Yet the thought of sharing meals with a thriving colony of "friends for a fair form", it appears, was not enough to dissuade the health conscious of the 1930s, who paid up in their multitudes for this product.

And many other products and devices which we would find ridiculous today are stored for posterity at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in the US.

The question is - how did anybody think that these things worked?
Bob McCoy, founder, Museum of Questionable Medical Devices
Its founder, Bob McCoy, scoured the collections of the American Medical Association and Food and Drug Administration for the most bizarre adverts and machines.

Starting with just a few "phrenology" machines - designed to assess your health by reading the bumps on your head, he has amassed more than 600 items from the last century to modern times.

"I found out that the FDA and AMA were planning to throw out hundreds of items - it was wonderful because I could just take them off their hands."

"The question is - how did anybody think that these things worked?"

Some of the most dubious products came with a recommendation that was little short of the Almighty himself.

One advertisement claimed that a compound called "nuxated iron" had been received "with particular gratitude by the Holy Father" at the Vatican.

Courtesy of Museum of Questionable Medical Devices
The Battle Creek Vibratory Chair: Shaky concept
"Weak, nervous or irritable" Catholics swayed by this plug would have to be careful not to share the fate of many of the early popes, however, as the small print revealed that nuxated iron contained the poison strychnine.

Many treatments perhaps oversold the likely benefits.

In the 1920s, "Auto-Hemic serum" claimed to be a cure for "laziness, ugliness, frigidity and many other things."


The museum also has one of the surviving examples of the "MacGregor Rejuvenator", a machine which appears a backward cousin of the modern medical scanner.

In a patent filed in 1932, a Mr Montrude of Seattle claimed that its unique combination of magnetism, radio waves, infra-red and ultraviolet could reverse the ageing process.

A good invigorator, bringing current and circulation directly into the organ," said the publicity material
Advertisement for device which electrocutes the male genitalia
Mr Montrude is believed to have since died, thus undermining every claim made on behalf of his machine.

In the early 1900s the Battle Creek Sanatorium had an outstanding reputation in the field of health science, embracing the latest in radium "treatments".

These were later abandoned when the jaw of a man who regularly drank radium-laced water to boost his sex drive fell off.

However, the "Battle Creek Vibratory Chair" was definitely an off-day for the doctors.

A patient strapping themselves into the sturdy seat would be shaken around violently, which would, it claimed, relieve intestinal problems.

Meal of worms: Could keep the pounds off
The devices are not all throwbacks to the turn of the century or thereabouts.

In the 1970s, foot-operated vacuum breast enlargers were all the rage - many millions of women parted with $10 for the gadget.

However, even though a temporary increase in cup size was possible in some cases, this came at the price of often severe bruising - not such a good look.

Similar vacuum-inspired devices are still on sale today, for both men and women.

Shoe blues

Many people in their 20s and 30s today would remember going to shoe shops which used x-ray machines to allow assistants to take a look at your bones.

Children peeking through a viewer would be fascinated by a glimpse of some faintly glowing shapes.

Alas, the machine had by then not only irradiated them, but usually everyone standing withing 10 feet. The machines were banned in the 1980s.

Courtesy of Museum of Questionable Medical Devices
Pump it up: Vacuum breast enlargers left bruising
The art of quackery is almost as old as medicine itself, and even in times of advanced conventional medicine, there are plenty of minds receptive to their trickery.

Bob told BBC News Online that, every now and again, he would be confronted by an outraged visitor demanding to know why their favourite remedy was on display.

He said: "They wonder why we're showing magnetic insoles, saying they have done them a lot of good.

"One woman called up my office and bawled us out because she said we didn't have any faith in them."

"Most people might realise that these things are bogus, but not everyone."

Ancient remedy

As early as 1800 in Great Britain, there are recorded medical papers on the subject.

Dr John Haygarth complained about a gadget called the "metallic tractor", which was sold for five guineas with the promise of using "Galvanism, or animal electricity" to cure all ills.

"Such is the wonderful force of the Imagination!" he moaned.

It is one of the first written mentions of the "placebo effect" - perhaps the cornerstone of virtually every questionable medical device since.

The great collector Henry Wellcome has some wonderful pieces of quackery in his archive.

On display at the British Museum until November is a kit used to blow tobacco smoke into the anus of someone who had recently deceased, in the belief that this would provide enough stimulation to revive them.

Sexual improvement

While this rather undignified procedure obviously requires no consent from the patient, what is remarkable is how much dignity even living patients were prepared to sacrifice in the quest for a better sex life in the days before Viagra.

The "prostate warmer" - another exhibit at the museum, comprises a Bakelite phallus designed to approach the offending gland directly and heat it up a bit.

This, in turn, was supposed to heat things up a bit in the bedroom.

"It was claimed that this would increase sexual energy by stimulating a man's 'abdominal brain'," said Bob. "I find this unlikely. But it got a patent in 1918."

The "Electric Developer for Men" was certainly designed to give your sex life a jolt.

"A good invigorator, bringing current and circulation directly into the organ," said the publicity material.

But for every gullible fool in past who has parted with their money for something like this, there is likely to be a modern equivalent.

Bob said: "I had someone send me in a 'Life Extension Ring' the other day. There are still plenty of questionable medical devices out there."

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