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Albert Abrams

Albert Abrams (1863–1924) was an American doctor, well known during his life for inventing machines which he claimed could diagnose and cure almost any disease. These claims were challenged from the outset. Towards the end of his life, and again shortly after his death, his claims were conclusively demonstrated to be both false and intentionally deceptive.

Early days

Abrams was born in San Francisco around 1863, giving dates a couple of years either way on occasions. Between 1910 and 1918, Abrams published several books on a medical technique he called Spondylotherapy, a manipulative technique not dissimilar to Chiropractic and Osteopathy, but involving electricity. Abrams described the theory and practice of spondylotherapy in a 1910 book by that name.

The Heidelberg Doctorate

Abrams fraudulently claimed to have qualified in medicine from the University of Heidelberg at the age of variously 18 to 20. In Abrams' view, American medicine was dominated by physicians who admired German doctors and researchers excessively. Earlier, he had aroused their anger by dubbing them in his writings Dr. Hades, Dr. Inferior, etc (comparing their looks to typhoid and other germs), and by making fun of various abstruse therapies that at the time were considered "scientific" by the medical establishment. In a hilarious send-up in verse of Balloon therapy, for instance, the doctors take their patients up in the air but don't know how to bring the Balloon down again. The poem ends with the lines: But they never came back. That's why we confess / Aëronautic therapy is not a success.

Electronic Reactions of Abrams

Abrams promoted an idea that electrons were the basic element of all life. He called this ERA, for Electronic Reactions of Abrams, and introduced a number of different machines which he claimed were based on these principles.

The machines

The Dynomizer looked something like a radio, and Abrams claimed it could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood or alternatively the subject's handwriting. He 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 determine personality characteristics.

The Dynomizer was big business; by 1918, courses in Spondylotherapy and ERA cost $200 and equipment was leased at about $200 with a monthly $5 charge thereafter. The lessee had to sign a contract stating the device would never be opened. Abrams then widened his claims to treating the diagnosed diseases. He came up with new and even more impressive gadgets, the "Oscilloclast and the "Radioclast", which came with tables of frequencies that it was to be set to, to "attack" specific diseases. Clients were told cures required repeated treatments.

Dynomizer operators tended to give alarming diagnoses, involving combinations of such maladies as cancer, diabetes and syphilis. Abrams often included a disease called "bovine syphilis," unknown to other medical practitioners. He claimed the Oscilloclast was capable of defeating most of these diseases, most of the time.

Students attended Abrams' San Francisco clinic for training courses listed at $200 USD a head, a significant sum at the time, and then leased the devices to take back home. Abrams developed a range of different devices. The rules specified that the boxes could not be opened. Abrams explained that this would disrupt their delicate adjustment, but the rule also served to prevent the Abrams devices from being examined.

By 1921, there were claimed to be 3,500 practitioners using ERA technology. Conventional medical practitioners were extremely suspicious.

A public uproar

In 1923, an elderly 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 a public uproar followed.

Investigation

The dispute between Abrams and his followers and the American Medical Association (AMA) was intensified. Defenders included American radical author Upton Sinclair and the famously credulous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Resolution of the dispute through the intervention of a scientifically respected third party was pursued. Scientific American magazine decided to investigate Dr. Abrams' claims. Scientific American was interested in the matter as readers were writing letters to the editor 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.

Scientific American assembled a team of investigators who worked with a senior Abrams associate given the pseudonym "Doctor X" The investigators developed a series of tests and the magazine asked readers to suggest their own tests. The investigators gave Doctor X six vials containing unknown pathogens and asked him to identify them. It seems likely that Doctor X honestly believed in his Abrams machines, since he would not have agreed to cooperate if he hadn't, and in fact he allowed the Scientific American investigators to observe his procedure.

Doctor X 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 got the contents wrong again.

The results were published in Scientific American. and led to a predictable "flame war" in the letters pages between advocates and critics. The investigators continued their work. Abrams offered to "cooperate" with the investigators, but always failed to do so on various pretexts. Abrams never actually participated in the investigation, and in ERA publications asserted he was a victim of unjust persecution.

Debunking

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 syphilis. The blood sample was in fact from a Plymouth Rock rooster.

Similar samples were sent to other Abrams practitioners, and a few found themselves facing fraud charges in court. In a case in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Abrams was called to be a witness. Abrams did not attend court, because he died of pneumonia at age 62 in January 1924.

With Abrams gone, the AMA publicly opened up one of his machines. Its internals consisted of nothing more than wires connected to lights and buzzers.

According to Rawcliffe, Abrams and his successors had "founded a good many special clinics in the United States and their number has by no means diminished in the ensuing years".

Notes

References

  • Fishbein, M., The Medical Follies: An Analysis of the Foibles of Some Healing Cults, including Osteopathy, Homeopathy, Chiropractic, and the Electronic Reactions of Abrams, with Essays on the Anti-Vivisectionists, Health Legislation, Physical Culture, Birth Control, and Rejuvenation, Boni & Liveright, (New York), 1925.
  • Hale, A.R., "These Cults": An Analysis of the Foibles of Dr. Morris Fishbein's "Medical Follies" and an Indictment of Medical Practice in General, with a Non-Partisan Presentation of the Case for the Drugless Schools of Healing, Comprising Essays on Homeopathy, Osteopathy, Chiropractic, The Abrams Method, Vivisection, Physical Culture, Christian Science, Medical Publicity, The Cost of Hospitalization and State Medicine, National Health Foundation, (New York), 1926.

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