The Medical Messiahs:
A Social History of Health Quackery
in Twentieth-Century America

Chapter 11: The Gadget Boom

James Harvey Young, PhD

"To call this a radio, you might as well call it a cat."

—Tobias G. Klinger, Assistant District Attorney, In His Summing Up,
    United States of America v. Ruth B. Drown, 1951 [1]

In early April of 1948, Mrs. Marguerite Rice of Blue Island, Illinois, observed that a small lump had formed in her right breast. Very disturbed, she went to see her family doctor. He gravely told her that the lump might be cancerous and urged an immediate trip to the hospital so that a biopsy might establish an accurate diagnosis. But Mrs. Rice did not go. She telephoned her husband, an engineer and vice-president of a suburban corporation, who was in California on business. In a day or so Rice and his wife talked with each other again. He agreed with her decision to stay away from the hospital. There might not be need to go. "I [have] found," he said, "a new miracle." [2]

The miracle was a "Radio Therapeutic Instrument" that banished the need for operations, which Rice had heard about from a business friend. Its inventor a Dr. Ruth B. Drown, whose laboratories were in Hollywood. Rice phoned for Mrs. Drown and learned that she was temporarily in Chicago. As soon as he got back home, Rice took his wife to Mrs. Drown's hotel for consultation [3].

Mrs. Drown was a brisk, commanding woman in her mid -50's, with angular features and a contralto voice. Learning from the Rices the disturbing reason for their visit, she took a drop of Mrs. Rice's blood upon a small piece of blotter and placed the blotter in the slot of a small black box. After twisting a series of knobs on top of the box, while rubbing her finger across a rubber plate, Mrs. Drown told the Rices what her diagnosis revealed. The lump in Mrs. Rice's breast was not a cancer, but was caused by a fungus growth that had spread through the digestive system to the liver. Moreover, Mrs. Rice was suffering from gall bladder trouble, a kidney that had ceased to function, and a deficiency of hydrochloric acid. These maladies were capable of cure within five months, Mrs. Drown said, by means of her Radio Therapeutic Instrument. She suggested that Mrs. Rice go for treatment to a Chicago doctor, Findley D. John, who used this instrument in his practice. For this encouraging counsel, Rice gave Mrs. Drown a check for $50 [4].

Daily Mrs. Rice made the 20-mile journey from Blue Island into Chicago for treatment at Dr. John's office. His therapeutic device looked much like the diagnostic device in Mrs. Drown's hotel room. Two wires ran out from the machine, each with a metal electrode at the end. On one of these Mrs. Rice was directed to place her feet; the other she put upon her stomach. After several weeks of treatment—costing $200—Mrs. Rice found the daily journey too taxing to continue. She need not keep coming, Dr. John informed her. "Just stay at home," he said, "and we can treat you by radio wave. That's what's wonderful about the Drown machine; it's just as effective when the patient is miles away as when he or she's here." [5]

So Mrs. Rice stayed at home, and Dr. John, with a drop of her blood on blotting paper, continued the treatments by remote control. When Mrs. Drown again visited Chicago, she confirmed her first diagnosis and urged the need for continuing therapy, expensive though it was. A month later, with a new bill of Dr. John's for $350, Rice wondered if it might not be cheaper to own his own machine. Again in California, he went to the Drown Laboratories and, for $423.07, bought a Drown Radio Therapeutic Instrument, which he took back on the plane with him to Illinois, along with an "atlas" of "rates," or dial settings, for his wife's ailments [6].

So Mrs. Rice, with a black box in her own home, followed directions carefully, setting the nine dials as specified and spending many hours with her feet on the metal plate at the end of one wire, the other electrode on her stomach. When not giving herself direct treatment, she engaged in distant therapy, clamping her blotter with blood between the electrodes. Thus she was able to sleep and to do her shopping, while the Drown instrument operated 24 hours a day [7].

Despite such fidelity, Mrs. Rice's health did not seem to improve. After four months of home treatment, she communicated her anxiety to Mrs. Drown. Back came another assortment of dial settings, determined by a Hollywood-to-Blue Island diagnosis made possible by the dried drop of Mrs. Rice's blood in Mrs. Drown's machine. Writing to thank Mrs. Drown for the new numbers, Rice sought new reassurances. "Does the checkup show any improvement ... ?" he asked. "There is a new lump forming in the breast. Does this show in your checkup? Is there any indication that cancer is present?" [8]

The reply was prompt. There was "improvement indicated," wrote Mrs. Drown, and the new lump was "congested lymphatic." Mrs. Rice's "condition has never been cancerous but any lump can cause it if let go long enough without proper treatment." Mrs. Drown would "do all I can but Mrs. Rice must realize if she's to get well she must swing her attention on to the work and put every effort forth . . . ." [9]

It was hard to pursue therapy more zealously than 24 hours a day. But Mrs. Rice persevered for three more months. The Drown treatment, however, seemed to do no good. Indeed, the breast condition seemed definitely worse. Rice phoned to Hollywood for counsel. "We suggest," came Mrs. Drown's reply, "that Mrs. Rice have the breast removed if she feels that she is not getting hold of the trouble with our treatment. She can treat the condition afterwards on the instrument." [10]

This was the first intimation from Mrs. Drown during the year and a half of Mrs. Rice's treatment that a malignant condition might exist. To the Rices this realization was shocking enough in itself. Its dreadful import was driven home with devastating force by a new factor. Simultaneously with the arrival of Mrs. Drown's letter came a condemnation of the Drown instrument in the Chicago Tribune as unmitigated quackery [11].

Frightened and angry, the Rices sought medical attention in New York City. Before going east, however, Rice got in touch with the Bureau of Investigation of the American Medical Association and told of his wife's experience with Mrs. Drown. The AMA notified the Chicago office of the Food and Drug Administration, which immediately sent an inspector to talk with the Rices [12].

This was by no means the first time the FDA had heard of Ruth B. Drown. For a number of years the agency had been concerned about her gadgets and others of similar ilk. Device quackery was ancient in America, but not until the 1938 law did the FDA secure authority to act against it. From early days, stretching gadgets had been marketed to increase height, compressing gadgets to remold breasts, fumigating gadgets to cure catarrh, skull-capping gadgets to restore hair. The main currents of device quackery in American history, however, had flowed from electromagnetism and electricity. This began in the late 18th century amid public curiosity over such enterprises as Mesmer's therapeutic seances in Paris and Franklin's kite experiments in Philadelphia. Dr. Elisha Perkins of Connecticut produced the first widespread mania with his metallic tractors, "gleaned up,' his state medical society in ousting him, "from the miserable remains of animal magnetism." It was Perkins' theory that his small gold and silver points—the first medical item patented under the Constitution—would, when stroked across the body, draw off a noxious electrical "fluid," which accumulated in the tissues and caused disease [13].

Some of Perkins' many successors also sought to heal by getting bad electricity out of the body; others sought to cure by putting good electricity in. For a century and a half, the magnetic belt was vended to do the latter, mostly, in its many gaudy versions, aiming to restore "vital power" missing from middle-aged males. A "voltaic belt" of 1890 could do much more: besides improving health and posture, it could comb the hair, press the clothes, and promote a luxuriant mustache—all in 30 days. These belts were joined by countless other items of therapeutic apparel circling the human frame—electromagnetic wrist-bands, cravats, anklets, elbow pads, necklaces, bead-caps, corsets, all sold with claims that their electrical input would cure dread ailments [14].

As the utility of electricity became more stunningly apparent to Americans during the ongoing Industrial Revolution, so too did the utility of electricity increase for quacks. Pill-pushers appropriated the names of both telegraph and telephone. And schemers with a modicum of mechanical skill built gadgets of increasing complexity, appropriating the glamor of those amazing but mystifying machines which Edison and other inventors were introducing.

One of quackdom's early Edisons was Hercules Sanche, who marketed first the Electropoise and then the Oxydonor. Each was a sealed metal cylinder, and to one end was attached an uninsulated flexible cord ending in a small disc, to be attached to wrist or ankle with an elastic band. "The Electropoise," Sanche said, "supplies the needed amount of electric force to the system, and by its thermal action places the body in condition to absorb oxygen through the lungs and pores." The main difference between the Electropoise and the Oxydonor was that the latter cost $35 instead of $10. Their commercial success bred countless imitators, one of them the Oxypathor. This gadget merits an honored place in the history of anti-quackery, for in 1915, after a long and hotly contested legal battle, the Post Office Department had won a criminal fraud case against its maker, the first victory against a quack device, offering the hope of at least some control over outrageously fraudulent gadgets if promoted by mail [15].

Do-it-yourself healing, however, although a large-scale enterprise, came to be overshadowed in the mechanical device field by a system wherein practitioners manipulated the gadgets. Reputable medicine, as the 20th century proceeded, turned more and more to diagnostic and therapeutic instruments, and so too did quackery. By 1915, when the Oxypathor case was won, Albert Abrams had already entered upon his fabulous career. In the decades that followed, it was Abrams' imitators and heirs—Ruth Drown among them—who constituted the most significant school of device quackery in the nation [16].

Device quackery preyed on the same widespread credulity, fear, and desperation which permitted all other forms of quackery to flourish. Gadgets could possess certain kinds of persuasiveness denied to drugs. One was the power to shock. A New York "clinic" early in this century treated young men who were led to believe they might be suffering from syphilis or the dire consequences of self-abuse. The patient sat naked upon a sort of toilet throne, his bare back resting against a metal plate, his scrotum suspended in a whirling pool. The plate and pool were linked by wire to a battery. No frightened sufferer could question the rigor of this therapy. Further, gadgets could appeal to several of the senses. The Violetta, vended as useful in 86 ailments, ranging alphabetically from abscess to writer's cramp, impressed itself simultaneously upon the hearing, seeing, smelling, and feeling of its user. A small, high-voltage generator, ionizing the air in a hollow glass head, the Violetta buzzed and crackled, produced a bluish glow, exuded ozone, and with its sparks tingled and warmed the skin [17].

Devices permitted quacks to display their customary ambivalence toward orthodox medicine. Relying for impressiveness in part on the alleged kinship of their gadgets to known and respected instruments like the x-ray and the electrocardiograph, quacks also promoted their machines at the expense of reputable medicine by boasting of their druglessness. A public uneasy about huge doses of calomel, which might cost them teeth and even jawbones, as in America's "heroic age" of medication, a public disturbed about thalidomide, as in the mid-20th century, paid heed to the bragging of the drugless healer. "Electricity," he said, ". . . will do more for you than all the drugs ever compounded." [18]

In the year that Abrams reached his ascendancy, Sinclair Lewis noted in a novel, [Babbitt] had enormous and poetic admiration, though very little understanding, of all mechanical devices." [19] Whatever special advantages device quackery might have, its fundamental force has come from the combination of admiration and incomprehension that so many Americans have shared with Babbitt. Here in the heartland of mechanization, equipment of enormous complexity, with flashing lights and wiggling dials, could send voices through the air, direct accumulating cars through an assembly line, detect and shoot down planes. Why not also cure disease?

The end of World War II saw an upsurge of device quackery. Radar and television excited public interest. Onto the market poured a vast quantity of surplus electrical equipment, easy to get and cheap for fashioning into awesome contrivances. The Food and Drug Administration, ending its wartime responsibilities, was closing in on some of the major areas of drug quackery, using its new powers under the 1938 law, thus prodding some quacks to try machines. Concerned also about mechanical devices, the FDA found many of them hard to attack, since many of the most insidious—like those of Mrs. Drown—were in the hands of chiropractors, osteopaths, and M.D.'s licensed by the states. The right of a licensed practitioner to determine what therapy was best for his patients was not one to be transgressed lightly, and this legitimate safeguard for the reputable physician was shielding many licensed "quacks." [20]

Mrs. Rice's sad circumstances gave the FDA an opportunity it had long been looking for. Up to this point officials had not been able to launch a case against her Radio Therapeutic Instrument, first of all, because Mrs. Drown had made changes in successive models. A seizure action might encounter difficulty in court if the model seized was different—even slightly and irrelevantly different—from the model in production. Also, so tightly knit was the circle of Mrs. Drown's disciples that the task of seizing an instrument that had traveled in interstate commerce was hard to accomplish. Practitioners using the device in their practice were understandably not cooperative with agents from the FDA. Disillusioned and chastened, the Rices were willing to let their experience be used for the protection of others, even at the cost of placing their most private misfortunes upon the public record. They permitted the FDA to seize the black box, so ill-fated for them, and the various brochures, diagnostic charts, and letters which constituted its labeling. The FDA filed a libel against the Radio Therapeutic Instrument, charging that it was misbranded. Mrs. Drown did not contest the action, and the court condemned the device. The FDA continued assembling data that might permit a criminal action against the box's maker [21].

The AMA had also known of Mrs. Drown before Rice came to relate his terrible tale. As early as 1941 a warning had appeared in the Journal. Rice's story caused the AMA to send a physician to interview Mrs. Drown when next she came to Chicago. There he met another woman, prominent in the city's social and educational circles, a devoted champion of the Drown approach to health. But none of his looking and listening persuaded the doctor that Mrs. Drown's ideas or apparatus possessed the slightest therapeutic value. The AMA undertook to oust from membership M.D.'s-like Dr. John—who employed the Drown gadgetry and to call into question the licenses of Drown practitioners in Illinois."

Sorely tried, with worse expected, Mrs. Drown consented to engage in an amazing trial by ordeal. She agreed to demonstrate the power of her medical machines before the assembled scientific talent of the University of Chicago. Mrs. Drown may have entered upon the venture with reluctance; certainly the Chicago scientists did. Neither party had much choice. Urging Mrs. Drown to the test was her influential pro tem champion, the woman with whom the AMA investigator had visited at the hotel. She was a member of the University's cancer board, hopeful that a vindication of Mrs. Drown's devices by reputable scientists would serve suffering humanity. University administrative officials, including Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins, also believed—although for different reasons—suffering humanity would profit by the test. The groundwork was laid by the eminent physiologist Anton J. Carlson, so often an expert witness for the FDA. A committee of physiologists, surgeons, physicians, photographers, and radiologists conducted the test, headed by Paul C. Hodges, professor of radiology. The professors insisted upon—and Mrs. Drown agreed to—the strictest of scientific controls and full publicity for all results [23].

On the last day of 1949 Mrs. Drown sought to show the professors how her machine could take an x-ray by remote control. The husband of the woman who had arranged the test lay elsewhere in the city, recovering from a fracture in the neck of his left femur. A drop of his blood on blotting paper was present in the test room. Could the Drown machine use this blood to take a radio photograph of the state of healing in the hip? She tried. The results were poor, she admitted, probably because the machine was out of line and the developing and fixing chemicals had been improperly mixed. In one shot, however, Mrs. Drown claimed that she could make out the impacted fracture. The Chicago scientists could see no difference at all between the "successful" and the unsuccessful shots. The film images that impressed Mrs. Drown were "Simple fog patterns produced by exposure of the film to white light before it had been fixed adequately."

That same afternoon, Mrs. Drown's diagnostic instrument went on trial. From ten patients whose state of health had been established, the Chicago scientists had extracted blood. As she had earlier done for Mrs. Rice, so now Mrs. Drown sought to do for the unknown: determine their ills. The procedure was protracted. During the entire afternoon she managed to accomplish only three diagnoses. The first patient, she asserted, after an hour of probing, was suffering from a cancer of the left breast which had spread to the ovaries, uterus, pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, and kidney; she was, moreover, blind in her right eye, not producing ova, and afflicted with reduced function of some 15 organs in her body. When the tedious test was over, Dr. Hodges reported the University's findings: the patient was, to be sure, a woman; her affliction was tuberculosis of the upper lobe of the right lung.

Mrs. Drown's second diagnosis was equally sweeping—and included improper functioning of both a uterus and a prostate! In fact, the male patient's principal complaint was severe high blood pressure. Mrs. Drown had termed that normal.

The third case, according to the Drown instrument, was especially grave, probably cancer of the prostate with spread to nearby organs and bones; prognosis was poor. According to Dr. Hodges, however, the patient was a healthy young male physician on the hospital staff.

After these "spectacular failures"—as the scientists' report termed them—Mrs. Drown proceeded to the third grim phase of the University of Chicago trials. Two anesthetized dogs, one a control, were placed on an operating table. A physician nicked the femoral artery of both dogs, then ligated the artery in the control animal. As blood from the test animal poured out over the table and onto the floor, the doctor predicted death within 10 to 15 minutes unless he likewise tied the artery or unless Mrs. Drown's hemorrhage control device, set up in the next room, fulfilled its promise.

"Mrs. Drown stood in the doorway watching her animal bleed," Dr. Hodges reported. "From time to time we asked whether she thought her experiment was working, and reminded her that she was the one to decide whether or not a ligature was to be applied." Finally she said to tie the artery. The "fiasco" was over. Mrs. Drown's erstwhile champion, who had arranged the tests, was "all but weeping."

Ruth B. Drown's next great trial came 20 months later in Los Angeles, in the United States District Court. Her misbranding of the device which Rice had carried back to treat his wife, the government charged, was a criminal violation of the 1938 law, since the Radio Therapeutic Instrument could not perform the healing miracles claimed for it. The list of allegedly false claims culled from Mrs. Drown's promotional brochures was long and bold. Her machine, she had asserted, would eliminate lumps in the breast and prevent cancer from them. It would also cure such divergent ailments and conditions as tipped uterus, an extra kidney, low function of the testicles of a six-year-old boy, heart trouble, loss of speech and memory, and on and on [24].

Nor was there any truth, the government charged, in the theories advanced by Mrs. Drown to explain her alleged cures. Her instruments, she had written, "tune[d] into the human body on the same principle as the commercial radio tunes into sound." As Einstein had stated, the universe contained one common source of energy. And everything in the universe, according to the Drown gloss, had "its own individual rate of vibration"—each organ, each gland, even each disease. The Drown instruments, using the body's "electromagnetic force," could tune in on the glands and organs, assaying their functioning, determining disease, and healing. Mrs. Drown's therapeutic instrument directed the total body energy of a patient through the machine back to the diseased part at the same vibratory rate that had been discovered during diagnosis for the ailing organ. "This steps up the vibrations in that particular area. Through the process of metabolism constantly going on in the body, the new cells which form will come in at the higher or normal rate and the diseased cells will automatically fall away. . . ." [25]

All this, the government charged, was nonsense.

Mrs. Rice was not in Los Angeles to help the government present its case in a court room filled with Mrs. Drown's loyal supporters. By the time Mrs. Rice had stopped using the Drown device, her cancer was inoperable. She was now too weak to accompany her husband on his sad journey to California. As the first prosecution witness, Rice told the judge and jury of his family's misadventures with Drown therapy, of Mrs. Drown's promises that were not fulfilled [26].

After this sobering prologue, the prosecution sought to show why, on scientific grounds, Mrs. Drown's gadgets could not diagnose or heal. A parade of experts, under the able questioning of assistant district attorney Tobias G. Klinger, challenged her claims and pooh-poohed her theories.

A radio engineer for the Federal Communications Commission, Robert J. Stratton, told the jury what the Drown device really was, taking the apparatus apart for their scrutiny. It consisted of a box, he said, with a bakelite panel for a top, which contained an entire electrical circuit of a very simple sort, a wire connecting two blocks, each of a different metal. The principle of galvanic action, Stratton said, had long been known; two dissimilar metals in contact with each other generate a very small voltage which registers on a sensitive micro-ammeter inserted in the circuit, like that on the Drown device [27].

"What would be the function of a human being," Klinger asked Stratton, "if he had the German silver on his solar plexus and the block tin . . . under his feet?"

"It would just complete the circuit," the engineer replied. "Just a piece of wet sponge could do the same thing."

The dial settings on the nine knobs, Stratton asserted, were utterly irrelevant. No more meaningful was the insertion into the slot of dried blood on a blotter: the slot was in no way linked to the galvanic circuit.

Was there any resemblance, the engineer was asked, between the Drown device and a radio?

Both devices contained wire, he answered. That was their only similarity. Nor did Mrs. Drown's gadget send forth radio waves.

Stratton's testimony was buttressed by that of an atomic physicist, Moses Greenfield, professor of radiology at UCLA. There was nothing in Mrs. Drown's instrument, he told the jury, that could measure electrons or measure or pick up radio waves or radioactivity of any kind. Even for completing a galvanic circuit, Greenfield testified, a person was not very satisfactory. "The only difference," Greenfield said, "between using the human body and, let us say, a salt solution would be that the human body does a rather poor job and salt solution a rather good job." [28]

The assistant dean of the University of Southern California Medical School, Homer C. Lawson, demonstrated with a compass that, despite Mrs. Drown's assertions, there is no magnetic field surrounding the human body. And be insisted that, despite her protestations, each gland in the human body did not possess its own peculiar individual atomic vibrations [29].

Physicians, concerned more directly with the therapeutic than the electrical aspects of the Drown devices, continued the prosecution's attack. The machines were "perfectly useless," would do "no conceivable good," would be "laughable if . . . not so dangerous." So spoke Dr. Elmer Belt, urologist and member of the California Board of Health. The danger came, be said, in treating diseases such as cancer by "any hocus-pocus method." Delay was "equivalent to writing a sentence of death for the patient." [30]

From the University of Chicago the government brought Dr. James W. J. Carpender, a radiology professor who had been present on the disastrous afternoon when Mrs. Drown had sought to diagnose three patients from three spots of dried blood and had three times failed. And from Chicago also came Mrs. Rice's current physician to tell the jury that the lump in Mrs. Rice's breast was still there [31].

Mrs. Drown's defense against the prosecution's case began long before her first witness sat in the witness chair. It was implicit in the cross-examination of the physicists and physicians who testified against her. From Texas Mrs. Drown had brought a genial, chatty, easy-going attorney, E.B. Simmons, not inexperienced in suits involving chiropractors. What Simmons seemed to be about in his leisurely cross-examination was to impress the jury with the inexpertness of scientific experts and the misunderstood merit of Mrs. Drown. He strove to find gaps in the medical knowledge of the doctors on the stand and engaged in long excursions into medical history, asking physicians countless details about which they were understandably ignorant. When the court asked Simmons what he was seeking to demonstrate, the lawyer replied, "It would show this, that if . . . [the doctors] do not know much about their own profession, they might not know too much about hers." [32]

Simmons' history lesson had another aim, to furnish Mrs. Drown with honorable antecedents. Had there not been women of humble birth, Madame Curie, for example, who had made momentous scientific discoveries? Had there not been a long parade of notable scientists who had suffered ridicule and persecution from their scientific contemporaries, only to be vindicated in the future? Did not Dr. Faraday successfully perform an experiment in 1833 that Dr. Price had tried in 1783 before the Royal Society without success? "Even a chiropractor's demonstration"—as at the University of Chicago ­ "might fall flat, might it not?" [33]

Still through the medium of cross-examination, Simmons strove for other points: that the government witnesses had not used the Drown instrument for therapeutic purposes under the inventor's tutelage; that recognized principles of physics might be legitimately restated in Drownian terms; that Mrs. Drown's theories were not more farfetched or mysterious than those involved in getting a man's image on a camera film or a wireless photograph from Korea to New York [34].

Nineteen of the defendant's patients—including several teachers—took the stand in her behalf, avowing marvelous cures or benefits from the Drown therapy in a whole host of diseases and conditions. One loyal supporter was Mrs. Patia Power, who asserted that during World War II she had constantly given remote treatment to her Marine transport pilot son—Simmons' questions made it obvious that she meant Tyrone—and "in his over two years of service he never went to sick bay once." [35]

Such was the ardent testimony of faith in Mrs. Drown presented in court by the chairman of the school board for Los Angeles [36].

Several defense experts—one M.D., two chiropractors, and the inventor of a helicopter—spoke in behalf of Mrs. Drown's theories, but none of the men still used her instrument professionally [37].

As final witness for the defense, Mrs. Drown took the stand in her own behalf. Simmons led her along a long, long trail of autobiographical apologia [38].

She had been born in Colorado, Mrs. Drown said, and had come to California in 1919. After a year of study at an osteopathic college in Missouri, she had transferred to the Los Angeles Chiropractic College, completing her degree and receiving a California license. Since then she had engaged in "extensive post-graduate work." Her interest in radiation dated from 1919, when she made a crystal radio.

"When I first was making the radio," she testified, "I was working for the Southern California Edison Company and was then required to repair all of my machinery in my department. I had four years and a half of training of repairing machinery. . . ."

With this electrical background, Mrs. Drown said, she learned of the intriguing views of Albert Abrams. She went to the office of an Abrams-oriented doctor "and worked as a nurse, first, and was studying diagnosing, and I diagnosed for four doctors for two years, just experimentally, taking their cases that were difficult to handle and learning as I went along."

And no more fervent champion could any beleaguered practitioner have than Mrs. Eleanor Allen [36]

"We don't call it 'a box,'" Mrs. Allen testified. "We call it 'an instrument,' an instrument played by a master artist."

She credited the instrument with saving her from pneumonia when she was in Atlantic City by healing rays aimed in her direction all the way from Hollywood. Should she be in a terrible accident, she said, in Moscow, the rays of the machine would penetrate the Iron Curtain, diagnosing the extent of her injuries and producing a cure. Mrs. Drown's device "is not black magic," her champion argued. "It is science."

Her own ideas began to diverge from those of her preceptors, she said, and in 1923 she began research in earnest, working "continuously." "My every day, my every night," she said, "has been a study." At first she used her invention only to diagnose. Then she discovered, to her amazement, that she could take photographs over long distances and also relieve disease. Through 22 years, she had diagnosed or treated over 17,000 cases. She did not make claims to cure, as that was unethical. But the only cases in which she had been unable to get results were "when the patients came too late."

"I will ask you," Simmons questioned, "if in all the cases that you have diagnosed and treated whether or not Mrs. Rice is the first one who has ever complained?"

"In all the 22 years," the defendant answered, "she is the first case that has ever been turned in against us."

Mrs. Drown was suspicious of the Rice machine that sat in the courtroom. Even though the defense had stipulated it was the instrument Rice had bought, Mrs. Drown thought it might have been tampered with, or that there might have been a switch.

At great length Mrs. Drown expounded on her therapeutic theories, not forgetting to mention Einstein, and claiming that her use of blood crystals for healing was cognate to radio, television, radar, cosmic energy, and the Geiger counter.

What about the University of Chicago trial?

Well, in one of the cases the official report had stated that Mrs. Drown had diagnosed a condition in the left lung. Dr. Carpender had testified the same thing. But Mrs. Drown insisted she had not said the left lung; she had said the right.

"And," Simmons asked, "have you ever said anything else?"


"Other than it was the right lung."


"Then when the doctor testified the other day that you said it was the left lung, was he right or was he wrong?"

"He was wrong."

And that was all about Chicago.

Mrs. Drown also left the impression through her testimony that applications she had made for patenting her devices were still pending in the Patent Office.

All in all, Mrs. Drown, in the defense image, was a scientist ahead of her time, honored here and there, but by and large as yet misunderstood, even hated, by the jealous members of the medical profession, whom she far transcended in her curative prowess. The government, using a single instance of dissatisfaction out of over 17,000 patients whom Mrs. Drown had served, was aiming its vast power at persecuting a benefactor of mankind.

To shatter this image was Klinger's task in cross-examination. He did so relentlessly, wielding the club of fact.

With respect to Mrs. Drown's alleged electrical experience as machine tester at the Southern California Edison Company, in what department had she in fact worked?

"I was in the addressing department."

At what institutions had she taken her intensive postgraduate study?

She did not mean that she had gone to college, but had engaged in self-study and taken courses at "every [chiropractic] convention that gave them."

Had she ever graduated from an osteopathic college or been granted an osteopathic license to practice?

No, she had not.

Then why had she said so in a sworn affidavit submitted to the Patent Office?

She did not remember. It had been written by her lawyer and she had no doubt signed it not realizing that he had mistakenly put "Osteopathic Physician" in it.

What instruments had Mrs. Drown sought to get patented?

"The photographic instrument was the only one they would let me apply on. . . . They deleted the treatment and diagnosing one . . . [in] 1935 or '36."

Then why was it that the treatment device sold Rice in 1948 bore a name plate including the phrase "Patent Applied For"?

"Most of our plates had them taken off, and if someone got that one, it was an old one and I know nothing about it."

"But that is the one that is in evidence, isn't it?"

"That evidently is. I don't even know. Someone broke into our place and I know nothing about what they got in it."

"It is stipulated to that that is the one Mr. Rice purchased from you."

"But I said I could not be sure, although the instrument was mine, that was the one he bought."

How had Mrs. Drown discovered that her instrument would treat as well as diagnose?

She described her first case dramatically, with a degree of detail she had been unable to summon up respecting the affidavit for the Patent Office.

Klinger then proceeded to point out, in the pages of one of Mrs. Drown's books, an entirely different case, designated as the first she had ever treated.

As merciless as the district attorney's cross-examination was his judgment on the result during his argument to the jury [39].

"I would say that rarely has a person been so clearly demonstrated in open court to be absolutely untrustworthy. . . . willing to sacrifice truth for expediency. . . . How much more completely can the credibility of a witness be shattered and her testimony impeached?"

Nor was other defense testimony persuasive. User testimony, Klinger told the jury, is "notoriously unreliable, not because people wish to misrepresent the situation but because they do not know it, do not understand it. just like any of us lay users of drugs . . . , they are not trained to observe, to note, to report scientific data." Referring to Mrs. Power's testimony that her Marine pilot son had avoided sick bay while receiving remote treatment with the Drown device, Klinger said, "My brother was in the Air Corps for four years, with 30 missions over Berlin, and never has spent a day in the sick bay, and he did not need the machine."

There was, in short, no evidence to bolster Mrs. Drown's "mumbo-jumbo language" against the "spectacular failure" of the University of Chicago trials, "the whole unhappy story of Mrs. Rice," and the combined weight of prosecution scientists that "from every point of view" Mrs. Drown's Radio Therapeutic Instrument was "absolutely and totally worthless."

Lawyer Simmons, explaining the discrepancies in his client's testimony, said that Klinger had gotten .the poor woman confused." In his closing argument Simmons recalled his cast of mistreated scientists who were ahead of their time. But Columbus, Harvey, Semmelweiss, and Billy Mitchell could not help Ruth Drown. On September 24, 1951, after being out some seven hours, the jury declared her guilty [40]

The case had cost the government, at a conservative estimate, some $50,000. Mrs. Drown's fine for violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was $1,000. She appealed the verdict, but the circuit court affirmed the jury's judgment and the Supreme Court would not grant certiorari. While these judicial actions were in process, on November 17, 1952, in Chicago, Mrs, Marguerite Rice died of the cancer which Mrs. Drown's machine had not been able to diagnose or cure [41].

Thereafter Mrs. Drown was careful to avoid distributing her devices in interstate commerce. She did not, however, cease practicing her pseudo-healing art in her own offices, adding to her total of patients treated through the years until it mounted to some 35,000 men and women. States continued to move with great caution against licensed practitioners who might be employing unethical machines. In 1963, after extensive investigation by the California State Bureau of Food and Drug Inspection, Mrs. Drown was indicted on charges of grand theft and attempted grand theft. She died, however, before her case could come to trial [42].

Albert Abrams had numerous other heirs, and many imitators as well, whose Oscillitrons, Depolarays, Electropads, Neurolinometers, and Radioclasts have awed the ailing and done much mischief. Against their makers the Food and Drug Administration has fought an increasingly vigorous and successful war, to which a significant 1962 court decision has added impetus [43].

To testify at one of the House committee hearings preceding the 1938 law-back in the days when Mrs. Drown was trying to get a patent—came one of Mrs. Drown's rivals in the medical device field, F. C. Ellis, inventor of the Micro-Dynameter. Ellis was better trained than Mrs. Drown, a graduate engineer from the University of Wisconsin. He had used his ability and expert training in industry and in the Navy. The professional engineer, Ellis told the Congressmen, has revolutionized society. "He wants to do everything on a measuring stick and get things down to a concrete basis where he knows what he is talking about instead of having it all rest on opinions." Physicians, Ellis said, possessed a few precise measuring devices, but not enough. Up to this point in his testimony Ellis sounded like an expert speaking within his realm of competence. Then he swerved off abruptly on a bizarre tangent [44].

Entering the "virgin field" of medical machines, Ellis said, he had "found a simple instrument based on the very simplest of electrical laws, known and accepted by electrical scientists for hundreds of years." "We make the human body function as a simple electrical cell and measure the current it generates," Ellis explained, permitting diagnosis of virtually every ailment known to man.

If seldom made before Congressional committees, the pitch was not unlike that of most electrical device entrepreneurs. By some quixotic break, a skilled engineer had been converted into a menace to mankind. Nearly three decades later, the Food and Drug Administration managed to win a landmark victory over the Micro-Dynameter. The machine which Ellis had invented, a court decided in 1962, "is not safe for use even in the hands of a licensed practitioner. A device whose labeling claims to be an aid in diagnosing as many diseases as this one, when in fact it is not, is unsafe for use no matter who uses it." [45]

The Micro-Dynameter decision has provided the FDA with a bigger club to swing against the fake machines. So Babbitt and the rest of us are better protected than we have ever been, should our awe and perplexity when faced with therapeutic instruments tempt us to the device quack's door. But we still are vulnerable, and hazard is still at hand. "Despite the success we have had in court in attacking device quackery," FDA Commissioner George Larrick stated in 1964, "so many fake gadgets are still in the hands of practitioners that if we set all of our inspectors at work on nothing else it would take several years to find and take successful action against all of these. devices." [46]

Those who would use machines to steal the hope of life from people like Mrs. Rice are still around.


  1. Transcript of testimony in the case of U.S.A., Plaintiff, vs. Ruth B. Drown, an individual,, Defendant, in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, No. 21639-Criminal, p. 1036. This typewritten document, in the FDA archives, is cited below as "Drown transcript."
  2. FDA file on Drown Radio Therapeutic Instrument, Interstate Office Seizure No. 60-624K, FDA Records, Washington; Drown transcript, 50-51.
  3. Ibid., 37-40.
  4. 4 Ibid., 8; FDA file 60-624K.
  5. Ibid.; Drown transcript, 25.
  6. ]Ibid., 8, 10, 13, 24; FDA file 60-624K.
  7. Drown transcript, 24-27.
  8. Ibid., 16-18; FDA file 60-624K.
  9. Drown transcript, 17-18.
  10. Ibid., 18-19.
  11. Ibid., 53; FDA file 60-624K; Chicago Tribune, Aug. 4, 1949.
  12. FDA file 60-624K.
  13. Young, The Toadstool Millionaires, 16-31; Jacques M. Quen, Elisha Perkins, Physician, Nostrurn-Vendor, or Charlatan?," Bull. Hist. Med,, 37 (1963), 159-66.
  14. Gerald Carson, One for a Man, Two for a Horse (N.Y., 1961), 3335; Printers' Ink: Fifty Years, 1888-1938 (N.Y., 1938), 84; A Treatise on the Application of John M. Tesch & Co.'s Electro-Magnetic Remedies (Milwaukee, 1866); Boston Electro-Pathy Institute broadside, 1859, in the American Antiquarian Society.
  15. N&Q, 1, 295-301; n, 706-13.
  16. On Abrams, see above, ch. 7; K. L. Milstead et al., "Quackery in the Medical Device Field," in Proceedings, Second National Congress on Medical Quackery [19631 (Chicago, 1964), 30-39.
  17. Champe S. Andrews, A Century's Criminal Alliance between Quacks and Some Newspapers (N.Y., 1905), 7-8; Violetta folder, AMA Dept. of Investigation. The author has a working Violetta model in his possession.
  18. N&Q, II, 721.
  19. Lewis, Babbitt (N.Y., 1922), 68.
  20. Central District annual report, 1946; Los Angeles Station annual report, 1947; Western District annual report, 1948, FDA Decimal file .062, Federal Records Center, Alexandria; Div. of Regulatory Management annual report, 1952, FDA Decimal file .053, HEW storage, Washington.
  21. FDA file 60-624K; DDNJ 3059.
  22. JAMA, 116 (1941), 888-89; Drown file in AMA Dept. of Investigation, especially Dr. F.T. Jung memo, Sep. 9, 1949; Chicago Tribune, Feb. 21, 1950.
  23. Mimeographed "Report of Committee Appointed to Investigate Claims of Mrs. Ruth Drown," in FDA file 60-624K; Chicago Tribune, Jan. 26, 27, 28, 1950.
  24. DDNJ 4029.
  25. Ibid.; Drown transcript, 13-16. Many of the statements were taken from a brochure, The Drown Radio Diagnostic Therapeutic Photographic Instruments.
  26. Drown transcript, 20-63; FDA file 60-624K; Tobias G. Klinger, "Conflict with Quackery," FDC Law Jnl., 8 (1953), 779.
  27. Drown transcript, 85-97, 239-65.
  28. Ibid., 184-236.
  29. Ibid., 466-95.
  30. Ibid., 104-83.
  31. Ibid., 427-65, 274-75.
  32. Ibid., 116, 147, 211-16, 312, 319-20, 392.
  33. Ibid., 214' 479-80.
  34. Ibid., 484, 221-32, 314-16, 450-55.
  35. Ibid., 500-841, Mrs. Power, 821-41.
  36. Ibid., 772-89.
  37. Ibid., 519-44, 555-601, 717-71.
  38. Ibid., 842-1027 for Mrs. Drown's direct testimony and cross-examination.
  39. Ibid., 1030-59.
  40. Ibid., 1060-95, 1114.
  41. Ibid., 1122; NJ 4029; Klinger, "Conflict with Quackery," 789; FDA file 60-624K. The circuit court decision was rendered Sep. 10, 1952, 198 Fed, (2d) 999, and is given in Kleinfeld and Dunn, Judicial and Administrative Record, 1951-1952, 165-71. The Supreme Court denied certiorari, Jan. 19, 1953. Mrs. Rice, had died Nov. 17, 1952.
  42. Milton P. Duffy, Chief, Bureau Food and Drug Inspections, California Department of Public Health, to author, Sep. 1, 1964; Life, 55 (Nov. 1, 1963), 78-81; John W. Miner, Head, Medicolegal Section, Office of the District Attorney, County of Los Angeles, to author, Oct. 20, 1966. Mrs. Drown died Feb. 12, 1965.
  43. Milstead, "Quackery in the Medical Device Field," 30-39.
  44. Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives . . . on H.R. 6906 . . . and S. 5 (74 Cong. 1 ses., 1935), 499505.
  45. U.S.A. v. Ellis Research Laboratories, Inc., 300 Fed. (2d) 550 (1962).
  46. George P. Larrick to author, Apr. 21, 1964.

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