Cool Things - Medical Quackery
These three pieces of quack medical equipment are part of a larger collection at the Kansas Museum of History, thanks to the inspectors of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
As the saying goes, there's a sucker born every minute. One might add that for every sucker, there's a quack claiming he can cure all ailments known to mankind.
Quacks are con artists who pretend to have medical training, and quackery is their line of work. Before medicine became grounded in science, its practitioners received little or no training and it was relatively easy for charlatans to operate unimpeded. As the profession advanced and researchers learned much more about the body, though, rigorous training and licensing standards developed. Nowadays, governmental agencies regulate medical practitioners and keep a close watch on pharmaceuticals.
One such regulatory agency is the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). In the 1950 and '60s its inspectors seized many examples of counterfeit medical equipment and medicines. KDHE used the confiscated items in public programs before eventually transferring them to the Society's Kansas Museum of History.
This collection also includes bust developers, muscle stimulators, pills, pumps, and other devices. Although nearly every piece in the collection is remarkable in its own way, these three are notable for the extravagant claims made by the quacks who promoted them.
Solarama Thermal Board
Swindlers excel at marketing. They typically offer detailed (albeit deeply flawed) scientific information on a machine's operation, yet are wildly general in listing the diseases it cures. This is evident in the claims made by Solarama, Inc., about its Thermal Board:
- An "electronic vitamin" which generates free electrons and brings all of the body's cells up from a dormant and semi-dormant state to an active state, restoring them to their natural vibrations,
- A cure for cancer, arthritis, headache, paralysis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and
- Beneficial to plant life by promoting more rapid germination and growth, larger and healthier plants, and greater crop yields.
Jimmy Scribner of South Carolina, inventor of the Solarama, believed an abundance of electrons produced good health. Scribner claimed this device, when plugged in and placed between the box springs and mattress of a bed, exposed users to beneficial electrons and produced perfect health, or at least a lack of disease.
As is obvious from its disappointing appearance, the Solarama is just two sheets of enameled pressed board held together by a metal frame. One of the sheets has a small graphite area on the interior that produces a very small amount of heat when electrified. One sheet is labeled "THIS SIDE UP" although this couldn't possibly make a difference in its operation.
In a 1975 court case, a physicist testified that not only did the Solarama not produce electrons, but when used between the mattress and springs of a bed it might, in fact, be dangerous for people suffering from urinary incontinence. This particular Solarama was seized in Garden City, Kansas, where a school custodian had been selling them for $150 each.
Dr. Fred Gerkey, a chiropracter from Mission, Kansas, made and marketed the Color-Therm in the 1940s. Declaring that poor health was caused when a body's color cycle got out of balance, Dr. Gerkey said he could cure disease by exposing patients to light at the proper frequency. This could be accomplished by his Cosmo-Light (later known as Color-Therm), which also had a special wand attachment allowing beneficial rays to be applied directly to affected parts of the body. It sold for $350 to $375 in Kansas and Oklahoma. (View the top of the Color-Therm.)
According to Evan Wright, ex-director of KDHE (and a man with an excellent sense of humor), the Color-Therm had exactly the same effect as standing under a neon sign in front of a beer joint. The machine's inventor was prosecuted in 1953 and spent several years in jail. When released, he continued to sell the device, marketing it to nursing homes as a deodorizer.
Quacks tap into the public's fascination with technology, and the most appealing quackery often looks amazingly complicated.
The Pathoclast is an impressive device, loaded with switches, knobs, dials, and meters having such commanding labels as "AQUA POTENTIA DIAL." Manufacturer Pathometric Laboratories of Chicago boasted the device could diagnose health problems by reading the body's electrical vibrations. This was accomplished by placing a small specimen--urine, blood, hair, or even nail clippings--into one of the wells and flipping the switch. Interestingly, its inventors claimed the Pathoclast could also deliver treatment by disrupting the vibration rates of diseases. One Kansas quack took advantage of these claims bragging that he could diagnose and treat people off-site. He inserted a photograph of the patient into one of the wells, then set the machine to deliver health-inducing radio waves--all without the person ever having to set foot in the office.
The Pathoclast pictured here was seized in Newton, Kansas, in 1961. Its back is open to display an array of radio tubes, lights, and wires. The effect is somewhat diluted by three small metal boxes that look suspiciously like tea tins.
The museum's collection also includes objects from a famous Kansas fake. Learn about Dr. John Brinkley, who has been called the most notorious quack of the 20th century.
For more information on medical quackery worldwide, visit the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.
Entry: Cool Things - Medical Quackery
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: September 2006
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.