Edward Willett

The curious case of Dr. Carefoot

Bob McDonald, director of membership and legal services for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan,, recently tipped me to the strange case of a Dr. Carefoot, disciplined by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Saskatchewan in the 1920s for diagnosing and treating patients using an Abrams Machine.

“A what?” you may wonder. As did Bob, and as did I.

Dr. Albert Abrams of San Francisco earned a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg, became professor of pathology at the Cooper Medical Institute (later the Stanford Medical School) and president of the San Francisco Medical-Chirurgical Society in 1893, and had a string of respected publications. But as the 1900s began, he developed some very odd notions.

For example, he suggested that all cancer was the late stage of syphilis, that vaccination resulted in an ailment unknown to anyone but himself called “bovine syphilis,” and that by tapping on a patients’ abdomen he could determine, not just their state of health, but even their religious denomination.

In 1908 he developed a medical treatment he called “spondylotherapy,” which consisted of striking the vertebrae with a hammer. But he hit the jackpot—literally—with the Electronic Reactions of Abrams, his claim, set forth in 1916, that all tissue gave off electronic vibrations and one could diagnose disease by measuring those vibrations.

To do so, of course, you needed special machines invented by Abrams. His Dynamiser diagnosed disease and his Oscilloclast treated it. The machines leased for $200 up front for the plug-in version and $250 for the battery-powered version, and operators paid a further $5 a month in rent. They also had to swear never to open the handsome wooden boxes: if they did, they found only a rather random collection of electrical parts wired together and connected to the dials and knobs.

Originally, diagnosis with a Dynamiser involved facing west in a dim-lit room and holding an electrode to your forehead while Abrams tapped on your abdomen. But before long Abrams claimed the newest version of his machine could make diagnoses from a drop of dried blood on a piece of paper sent through the mail. At first this sample had to be held up to the forehead of a healthy assistant (facing west in a dim-lit room, of course), but soon Abrams did away with the assistant and made do with just the dried blood. Eventually he was willing to diagnose from a simple signature.

The Oscilloclast came with a table of settings for treating specific diseases. An electrode was then applied the suspected site of the illness.

Of course, in reality neither machine did anything at all. The man who made them for Abrams later said the doctor told him it didn’t matter how he connected the parts as long as they were wired together. A panel of experts convened by Scientific American couldn’t find the slightest evidence that any current passed through the machine at all. Skeptics sent Abrams chicken, guinea pig and sheep blood: one guinea pig, according to Abrams, suffered from tuberculosis of the uterus, pancreatic cancer and a streptococcal infection of the gall bladder. (These kinds of alarming multiple diagnoses were common for humans, too.)

Abrams ultimately leased out about 3,000 machines, 1,500 to chiropractors and 1,500 to physicians, and when he died on January 13, 1924, he left an estate of three to five million dollars.

The American Medical Association began lambasting Abrams as a quack as early as 1922, and by the time Dr. Carefoot was disciplined in 1924, Abrams and his machines had been well-debunked in medical circles.

The Court of King’s Bench, hearing Dr. Carefoot’s appeal in 1925, agreed that the College was correct in disciplining him because he claimed the machine was infallible, guaranteed a cure, and told patients they had diseases they didn’t have—but the judge, J. Bigelow, impressed by anecdotal evidence from patients claiming the machine worked and giving those anecdotes greater weight than expert medical opinion (as do people who fall for medical quackery today), said simply using an Abrams Machine wasn’t grounds for discipline. Indeed, he was convinced it did have some value for diagnosis and treatment, though exactly how much value he didn’t know.

I have no idea what became of Dr. Carefoot. But sadly, Dr. Abrams’s fraudulent and discredited theories live on in an “alternative medicine” called “radionics,” praised and believed in by the gullible (and those who make money off of them) to this day.

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