Medical quackery has always been a profitable hunting ground for conmen. Electricity was a good hook to draw in the gullible, as it had long been regarded as something of an elemental life force. After all, it could make disembodied frog’s legs move. Mary Shelley’s novel FRANKENSTEIN, published in 1818, reflected this impression by having Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork monster brought to life by electricity.
The plausibility of electrical techno-cures was enhanced by the fact that electrical machinery was actually being put into practical use in medicine. Electrocautery machines proved much more effective than hot irons and other primitive cauterization tools, for example, and in the 20th century all types of valuable medical electronic instruments were developed. However, as the scope of medical electronics widened, so did the scope of medical electronic frauds. The king of all the medical quacks was Dr. Albert Abrams of San Francisco. Nobody ever approached Dr. Abrams for sheer nerve, and few ever enjoyed such great success.
Dr. Abrams had one of the main traits of a good con artist: he looked real. His credentials were excellent. Born in San Francisco in 1863, he had received a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg while he was still a teenager; he had been chief pathologist at the Cooper Medical Institute, later the Stanford Medical School; and in 1893 had been president of the San Francisco Medical-Surgical Society. He was regarded as a guru by other doctors in the city, and had published many articles in prominent medical journals. His patients were the rich and powerful, and he was a member of San Francisco’s social elite. Exactly why a reputable and successful physician like Dr. Abrams turned to the “dark side” is hard to understand. His letters hint at a degree of megalomania, a desire to obtain stature at any cost, or maybe it was just simple greed.
During the First World War, Abrams promoted a theory that electrons were the basic element of all life. He called his theory ERA, for “Electronic Reactions of Abrams”, an egocentric designation that lends some credence to the megalomania hypothesis. Abrams introduced a number of different machines that operated on the principles of ERA. One of the most important was the “Dynomizer” that could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood. Sometimes it appears to have involved using a healthy subject as a reference, with the blood sample “polarized” by a magnet before being inserted into the machine, which would then sense the frequencies of the vibrations.
By the way, the blood didn’t have to be very fresh. Abrams performed diagnoses on dried blood samples sent to him on pieces of paper in envelopes through the mail. Apparently Abrams even claimed he could conduct medical practice over the telephone with his machines, and that he could also determine personality characteristics.
The Dynomizer looked something like a radio, and it was not too much of a stretch to believe that if a radio could tune in distant radio communications, a similar device could interpret the electrical signals of the body. Well … OK, it was a pretty big stretch, but it might have been more believable in the days when radio was new and mysterious, and making a connection between the two technologies a clever touch on Abrams’ part. Abrams also built his devices to look very pretty, with fine hardwood cabinets and high-quality accessories.
The Dynomizer was big business by 1918, and then Abrams decided to take the next step. Diagnosing a disease was more or less a one-time operation, but treating a disease, particularly one not strongly based in reality, required repeated treatments. Abrams came up with a new and even more impressive gadget, the Oscilloclast, apparently also known as the Radioclast. It came with tables of frequencies that it was to be set to that allowed it to attack specific diseases.
The Dynomizer tended to give very alarming diagnoses, involving combinations of such maladies as cancer, diabetes, and syphillis. Abrams often included a disease called bovine syphillis, which mystified proper medical practitioners since they had no idea what it was. Of course, the Oscilloclast was capable of defeating most of these diseases. It didn’t always get them all, but of course no machine was perfect, not even the Oscilloclast.
Students flocked to Abrams’ San Francisco clinic for training courses at US $200 a head, a goodly sum at the time, and then leased the good doctor’s marvelous devices to take back home. It appears that Abrams developed quite a range of different devices besides the Dynomizer and Oscilloclast to service the demand for ERA technology. The rules specified that the boxes could not be opened, as it might disrupt their delicate adjustments.
By 1921, there were 3,500 practitioners using ERA technology. Conventional medical practitioners were extremely suspicious, not merely because they doubted ERA was for real and thought it likely to lead to disasters, but because ERA practitioners were cutting into their business.
In 1923, disaster struck. An old man who was diagnosed in the Mayo Clinic with inoperable stomach cancer went to an ERA practitioner, who declared him “completely cured” after treatments. The man died a month later and an uproar followed. The war between Abrams and his followers and the American Medical Association (AMA) went into high gear.
Defenders included American radical author Upton Sinclair, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It must be noted in this context that Conan Doyle was notoriously gullible. He believed in fairies, accepting as evidence laughably faked photographs, and Harry Houdini commented after meeting him that Conan Doyle was absolutely astounded at novice-level sleight-of-hand tricks.
The only way the dispute could be resolved was through the intervention of a scientifically respected third party. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine, a well-established and prestigious publication for decades, decided to investigate Dr. Abrams’ claims. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN also a perfectly impartial reason to be interested in the matter, since readers were writing letters to the editor and saying that Abrams’ revolutionary machines were one of the greatest inventions of the century and so needed to be discussed in the pages of the magazine.
What was the truth? Was Abrams a genius, as his partisans claimed, or a fraud, as the AMA claimed? SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN assembled a team of investigators who worked with a senior Abrams apostle named “Doctor X” to find out the truth. The investigators developed a series of tests, and the magazine asked readers to suggest their own tests, another measure indicating the publication’s impartiality.
The investigators gave Doctor X six vials containing unknown pathogens and asked him to verify what they might be. It seems likely that Doctor X honestly believed in his Abrams machines, since he wouldn’t have agreed to cooperate if he hadn’t, and in fact he allowed the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN investigators to observe his procedure. He got the contents of all six vials completely wrong. He examined the vials and pointed out that they had labels in red ink, whose vibrations confounded the instruments. The investigators gave him the vials again with less offensive labels, and he still got the contents all wrong.
The results were published in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and led to a predictable “flame war” in the letters pages of the magazine between advocates and critics. The investigators continued their work. Abrams offered to “cooperate” with the investigators, but he always begged off when they stipulated conditions he didn’t like. Abrams never actually participated in the investigation, and in fact in ERA publications he tried to paint himself as a victim of unjust persecution.
Then an AMA member sent a blood sample to an Abrams practitioner, and got back a diagnosis that the patient had malaria; diabetes; cancer; and of course syphillis, presumably bovine syphillis. Actually, the blood sample was from a Rock rooster. Similar tricks were played on other Abrams practitioners, and a few found themselves facing fraud charges in court. This was what the critics had been waiting for, since in a case in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Dr. Albert Abrams was called to be the star witness. Dr. Abrams managed to avoid appearing in court, however, by the effective if somewhat drastic measure of dying of pneumonia at age 62 in January 1924. The fact that his machines hadn’t been able to cure him was not lost on the critics.
With Dr. Abrams gone, the AMA then publicly opened up one of his machines. Its internals consisted of nothing more than wires connected to lights and buzzers and so on. It was a prop, and it wasn’t very a very good prop at that. It was clear that Dr. Abrams was a deliberate fraud.
The fad was over, but as long as there was a buck to be made, other people moved into the vacuum and built devices based on similar principles, such as they were. None would achieve the remarkable stature of those of Dr. Albert Abrams, who the AMA said “easily ranked as the dean of twentieth-century charlatans.”