Albert Abrams

From Academic Kids


Albert Abrams (18631924) was a San Francisco doctor who employed the practice of electricity therapy (as ERA, or Electronic Reactions of Abrams) to supposedly cure all manner of ailments.

Contents

Early days

Dr. Abrams was born in San Francisco in 1863. He received a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg while still a teenager. He became chief pathologist at the Cooper Medical Institute, later the Stanford Medical School, and in 1893 was president of the San Francisco Medical-Surgical Society. He was regarded as a guru by other doctors in the city, and had published many articles in prominent medical journals. His patients were the rich and powerful, and he was a member of San Francisco's social elite.

During the First World War, Abrams promoted a theory that electrons were the basic element of all life. He called his theory ERA, for Electronic Reactions of Abrams, and introduced a number of different machines that operated on the principles of ERA. One of the most important was the Dynomizer, which he claimed could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood. Sometimes it appears to have involved using a healthy subject as a reference, with the blood sample "polarised" by a magnet before being inserted into the machine, which would then sense the frequencies of the vibrations.

The devices

The Dynomizer looked something like a radio, and it was not too much of a stretch for people to believe that if a radio could tune in distant radio communications then a similar device could interpret the electrical signals of the body. The blood did not have to be fresh; Abrams 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, then Abrams decided to take the next step: treating the diagnosed diseases. Abrams came up with a new and even more impressive gadget, the "Oscilloclast", apparently also known as the "Radioclast". It came with tables of frequencies that it was to be set to that allowed it to attack specific diseases. Cures required repeated treatments.

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

Students flocked to Abrams' San Francisco clinic for training courses 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 to service the demand for ERA technology. The rules specified that the boxes could not be opened, for fear of disrupting their delicate adjustments.

By 1921, there were 3,500 practitioners using ERA technology. Conventional medical practitioners were extremely suspicious, not merely because they doubted ERA was for real and thought it likely to lead to disasters, but because ERA practitioners were cutting into their business.

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 war between Abrams and his followers and the American Medical Association (AMA) went into high gear. Defenders included American radical author Upton Sinclair and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

The only way the dispute could be resolved was through the intervention of a scientifically respected third party. 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.

The magazine assembled a team of investigators who worked with a senior Abrams associate named "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 verify what they might be. 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 he always begged off when they stipulated conditions he didn't like. Abrams never actually participated in the investigation, and in ERA publications painted himself as 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 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 the star witness. Abrams managed to avoid appearing in court, however, dying of pneumonia at age 62 in January 1924. That his machines had not cured him was not lost on the critics.

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. It appeared that Dr. Abrams was a fraud.

The fad was over, but others moved into the vacuum and built devices claimed to be based on similar principles. None would achieve the stature of those of Dr. Albert Abrams, who the AMA said "easily ranked as the dean of twentieth-century charlatans."

See also

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