Snake Oil: a brief history of alternative medicine

Early in 2005 Professor Kaye Ibbertson, the relentless grand vizier of the Marion Davis Library and Museum, asked David Cole to offer the Medical Historical Society some comments about the history of unorthodox medicine. He was in the process of assembling several convincing excuses, when Ibbertson turned off his hearing aid and any excuses were set aside. This article is based on the talk which resulted.

Continue reading

From ERA to EAV, the Sorry Saga of the Black Box

As Professor Cole explained at the last Skeptics’ Conference, “Quantum Booster”-like devices have been around a long time.

If you include the Roman physician, Scribonius, who treated patients with shocks from electric eels, then electro-medicine has a very long and distinguished history indeed. But its recent history really began in the 1920s, with the flowering of America’s Black-Box supremo, Albert Abrams, of San Francisco. He was to become a millionaire from the sale of his sealed “black” boxes for diagnosing and treating almost everything from stretch marks to streptococci and, most seriously, cancer.

At the turn of the century Abrams recognised that so-called radionics and electro-medical gadgets were ripe for exploitation with their incredible (and I use that word literally) power of rapid and accurate diagnosis of diseases and their radio-frequencies. For therapy, other versions were designed to shatter the identified diseases whether bacteria or cancer. His own device became the Electronic Reaction of Abrams (ERA).

Abrams’ fame and machines spread to the UK, where the President of the British Medical Association spoke in strong support. Fortunately there were some sceptics in the Royal Society of Medicine (we would be proud of them) and Lord Horder was sent to investigate. In 1925 he returned from the USA to report, much to the relief of the medical establishment, that his team found “its use is scientifically unsound and ethically unjustified” and, they went on to say, they could “give no sanction to the use of ERA in diagnosis or treatment of disease”, … so diminishing, but not extinguishing, this strange manifestation.

It was not just in California, the capital state of medical fraud, that electro-diagnosis flourished, for there were many others to come: Rife in the ’30s, Ruth Down in the ’40s and in New Zealand, Dr Laurie Gluckman reported meeting an elderly Maori tohunga who had an old car battery and some wires, which, attached to his clients, served the same purpose.

Nowadays we are surrounded by black boxes in our home, and they are also the armamentarium of TV servicemen, car mechanics and the ultimate black boxers, the radiologists. It is easy to see how people in the 1920s would be impressed with dials and wires, solenoids and resistors. After all the Electrocardiograph – arguably the most successful black box of all time – had been discovered only a few years before in 1921 by Eindhoven, later a Nobel Prize winner for this work.


But to return to the anti-hero of this confection. Soon after World War 1, Albert Abrams, holding an MD from Heidelberg, began treating patients’ spines by thumping special points, a technique he called “spondylotherapy”, a rival to Palmer’s chiropracty developed in Iowa two years before, or Still’s osteopathy, then a year or two older. Both have proved more durable.

As Maurice Fishbein of the American Medical Association commented wryly: “Abrams, having percussed the back to the fullest extent it would yield monetarily, he rolled the patient over and percussed the abdomen.” But strangely it was not the patient’s own abdomen, for Abrams did not need to have the patients themselves present and instead placed a specimen of their blood on a slide into the circuit. Wires led from this “dynamiser” to the forehead of a neutral test subject, standing on ground plates.

Diagnoses of illness were made, enthusiasts proclaimed, “with superb sensitivity”, aided by a remarkable chart that designated resonance areas for various illnesses (shades of iridology charts). Investigators were startled to find that, rather dramatically, these patients could also be further categorised by abdominal dullness patterns into: Catholic, Seventh Day, Jewish, Protestant and Methodist.

Very soon, delighted with his diagnostic machine and needing something with which to actually treat the patient, he invented an “oscilloclast” along the same lines. This was calibrated to respond to vibrations peculiar to the specific disease, after establishing the frequency with the “dynamiser”.

Shrewd Business

Abrams’ final entrepreneurial touch was not to sell his oscilloclasts, but instead to lease them out, insisting on a signed agreement that the machine would not be opened, examined or serviced by the lessees. A sound idea, replicated in 1998 by a New Zealand GP, who imported a $40,000 black box, ETG, whose function was “electro-trichino-genesis”, ie causing hair to grow. On the sealed generator was the statement “tampering with the box will lead it to self-destruct”.

Lord Horder was not the only official enquirer about Abrams’ remarkable boxes. It is a measure of the notoriety of this treatment that in 1924 Scientific American published 12 articles exhaustively examining ERA. The experts concluded that the claims were not substantiated and the treatments were without value. Abrams was of course not deterred, he continued to attract patients and died a rich man at the height of his fame in 1925.

One of Abrams many imitators in the 1930s was another American, Royal Rife, and he deserves brief mention here because his so-called generator has recently appeared in Rotorua under the name of Quantum Booster. This was used in the sad case of young Liam Williams-Holloway from Southland. The generator allegedly produces radio waves with precisely the same frequency as the disease, usually believed to be an infection but widely used for cancer.

It is now time to introduce another medical doctor from a very dubious Medical College in Missouri, Dr Dundas Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a New Zealander who had been at the Otago School of Mines, but did not really strike gold until some time after he returned to New Zealand in 1896 fresh from homeopathic training in the USA. His name plate stated he specialised in Cancer and Chronic Disease but he later, under cross examination, said that he was an “auto-haemic surgeon” who specialised in orificial surgery (orifices not specified).

Having visited Abrams in 1920, and realising the potential of the “box”, he soon ran foul of the BMA here, for he gave demonstrations of the Abrams machine in the Auckland Town Hall and claimed cancer cures. Application was made to stop him practising but the Medical Registration Board were slow to act, for he had powerful friends, including the Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Sir George Fowlds, who also believed in phrenology.

After a preliminary hearing in front of the Board, the case moved to the Supreme Court. The local doctors had assembled some firm if devious evidence, having taken some blood for testing from a donkey who gave rides at Mission Bay. Mackenzie reported that this test sample showed the “patient” had both tuberculosis and congenital syphilis, which was naturally of some concern to the mothers of the potential riders of the aforesaid donkey.

In his memoirs Vince Meredith, the leading KC who took the Board’s case, described this case as his most memorable as it “combined the ludicrous with the tragic in almost equal proportions.” He made great play in Court of the donkey subterfuge, and pitied this “always respectable animal” whose testing had apparently “revealed a past that was not always respectable”. Mackenzie’s opponents had also covertly submitted for testing some human blood samples from people with known disease. There was no correlation.

When asked if an official and supervised test could be arranged, Mackenzie declined to take part in any trial. In Court Meredith made the strong point that Mackenzie frightened innocent patients with spurious diagnoses of syphilis and cancer and then cured them with the oscilloclast machine. It worked well for these non-existent diseases, a technique for success that is believed to have been used by other New Zealand charlatans in cancer scams in the 1980s.

Honest Belief

At the Supreme Court Meredith convinced the Judge that having refused any tests Mackenzie could not “honestly believe” in the machine. This phrase was very appropriate as it came from the 1858 British Medical Act and later was introduced into the Medical Practitioners Act in New Zealand in a 1924 amendment of s58 concerning unorthodox practice, the so-called homeopathic clause. It is a worry to us that it still survives in the recent 1995 Medical Practitioners Act although all other Commonwealth countries have abandoned it.

The process of proving and successfully prosecuting these unorthodoxies can be prolonged and very expensive (“the black wine-box phenomenon”). This is illustrated by the tale of a Hollywood chiropractor, Ruth Drown, who had an enormous following. Her radionic instrument was especially valued as she claimed it worked at a considerable distance by a telephone connection. In this instance the FDA decided to act, and after a cancer test-case Drown was found guilty and fined $1000. The prosecution had cost the FDA $50,000.

Marriage of Convenience

By the early 1950s the reputation of black boxes was flagging. What saved them was a marriage of great convenience with acupuncture. A Japanese doctor had observed that many of the 361 classical Chinese acupuncture points in the body had reduced skin resistance when tested conventionally with a small current; these he called “ryodoraku points”. It was then a small step for a German, Reinhold Voll, to develop the machine he patented as the Dermatron. Using an electrode held by the patient, and with a probe, he tested the acupuncture sites noting the skin resistance changes. He claimed he could not only identify the diseased organ but diagnose and treat a variety of disorders in these organs.

Furthermore, he serendipitously “observed” that homeopathic substances introduced into the test circuit further altered the resistance in some subtle way and could thus be tested for relevance; for example, putting dilute Roundup in the circuit might identify it as the problem. This was the crucial breakthrough that ensured the commercial success of the method. Schimmel in Germany also produced a “Vegatest” machine which has found increasing favour and similarly allows for the introduction of test samples.

We are told of course, there is “enormous” skill required to find the right points and apply the correct pressure. This became apparent when a New Zealand medically qualified, now deregistered, eco-medicine specialist was asked during his trial to allow patients with known disorders to be put through the circuit, even when he was the operator. Just like Mackenzie he refused because he considered these were unusual and misleading situations, not comparable to natural patient diagnosis.

Detached observers have repeatedly commented that the degree of skin pressure of the probe, and hence the resistance reading, is entirely, and unreliably, in the fingers of the operator.

The Vega Machine

Unlike the Abrams oscilloclast, the Vega machine does not seem to be used for treatment on its own, but has usually been linked to treatment by homeopathy. In the case referred to above the doctor had relied heavily on the Vega readings in his management of the cases by “complex” homeopathy and hyperbaric oxygen. The Medical Council found this and other aspects unacceptable, and he was deregistered.

In another case put before the disciplinary authorities, a GP described the manner in which he identified a baby’s food allergies by Vega-testing her mother’s foot. Indeed it seemed it was not even necessary to have the baby in contact with the mother and in one case under discussion the practice nurse had been required to remove the crying child to the office so the examination could proceed. The startled mother was assured the machine could still work up to five metres. Indeed very few questions were asked of the mother for the doctor had, he explained, a subconscious link with the baby and was getting the answers directly. Worse still was his frightening of mothers with old-fashioned homeopathic miasm warnings of ancestor disease and criminal activity, the inherited basis for the baby’s problems.

No Substantial Benefit

In this case, and the preceding one, the medical tribunal steered clear of any evaluation of the efficacy of the procedures. It was transparently clear, that for the patients assembled as witnesses, no substantial benefit was provided. But more than that, proper and standard medical treatment, as expected from a registered medical practitioner, was seriously absent. This is what led to the penalties.

The final generation of these diagnostic machines are inevitably now computerised. In Canada withdrawal of medical license followed a Dr Korman’s use of his “interro-computer” for what the registration body described as “totally useless and unproven tests while working under the cloak of respectability of his medical licence”.

His prescriptions for the patient to observe after diagnosis, can only be described as bizarre. These including having all dental amalgam removed (under hypnosis), removing the microwave from kitchen, use of a dustless vacuum cleaner and watching TV via a mirror. Two mirrors might have allowed her to at least read the text.

Here is a quote from the 1991 American Journal of Acupuncture:

“Western allopathic medicine is founded and supported on the reductionist-mechanical scientific paradigm that originated in the 17th century. Unlike Western medicine, science is becoming holistic” [the magic word], “based on quantum mechanics, new laws relating to the chaos theory, fractals and the discovery of self organised criticality and non linear science”.

These words, like “chaos theory” conveniently plucked from sister sciences, are implying that we are far from up to date. Has the unorthodox world found something we are missing? I think not.