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Snake oil and Spectro-Chrome: Public health professor collects quack medical devices

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The (Tinley Park) Daily Southtown

BURR RIDGE, Ill. -- Call them snake-oil salesmen, but the folks who sold a wide range of devices guaranteed to solve dozens of health problems led James Hagen to a wildly entertaining hobby. Hagen, a professor of public health at Saint Xavier University's Orland Park campus and a consultant with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, collects these devices and elixirs at his Burr Ridge home.

All are interesting, but when it comes to curing, they strike out.

There are the arsenic pills ladies munched to ensure a pale complexion, and the Spectro-Chrome, a machine creator Dinshah Ghadiali claimed could cure anything with colored lights.

"You have these glass plates and a light bulb inside. You'd combine different plates for different wavelengths of light," Hagen said. "Supposedly, different waves of light would cure diseases by your just sitting in front of the machine."

The maker claimed green light would build muscle, red would help the hemoglobin and turquoise would solve cerebral depression.

"I met an elderly couple in Milwaukee who recalled their mother sitting in front of the machine for hours. After she died, their father would bring the machine into their rooms if they were sick with a cold," Hagen said.

The only benefit was seeing pretty-colored lights.

The Spectro-Chrome and other gadgets are an indicator of human nature, the desire to seek something, anything, that will make us feel better.

"I started collecting these 15, 20 years ago," the 56-year-old said, "because I was trying to protect people from this out-and-out fraud and quackery."

He's found items at garage sales and auctions. He's been given things by people he's met. He received a few things from friend Bob McCoy, author of "Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices." The museum is in Minnesota.

Victims of quackery have sought relief with handheld devices that delivered electrical shocks, thought to zap illness away. Potions and elixirs, such as Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People or Winslow's Soothing Syrup for teething infants, usually contained high levels of alcohol or cocaine.

Or you could always sit in the Health Jolting Chair that could "cure disease, prolong life, etc., etc.," Hagen said.

How?

"It has a huge spring underneath. You'd sit down, and it would wind the spring, then it would whack you from underneath. That's all it did," he said.

Another device was a belt, powered by batteries, that sent an electrical current to the body to cure whatever ailed the wearer.

"People were told to not worry if they got blisters that turned green, because that's just the virus coming out," Hagen said.

It's not that people were stupid to buy these items, some of which cost $20 or more -- a fortune back in the day. They were just grasping for hope.

"People can be gullible. But back then, there were no cures, no antibiotics, no pain medications. And, sometimes, the cures that did exist were more painful than they are today. So people bought these things," Hagen said.

The use of hype and phony, outlandish testimonials boosted sales, he said.

Even doctors sometimes had devices such as the Spectro-Chrome in their offices as late as the 1940s.

"I'd like to believe all doctors are upstanding citizens," he said, "but that's not necessarily true."

Hagen said that even today, if there's a dollar to be made, chances are you'll see outlandish devices sold. He has a flier for a device that claims to clean HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from the bloodstream.


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