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‘Downton Abbey’ And The History Of Medical Quackery

Filed by KOSU News in Health.
September 21, 2012

The third season of the television show Downton Abbey premiered in the U.K. last weekend, and if you’re a dedicated follower like me, you’ll know that medical tragedy is no stranger to the Crowley household.

Spanish flu and a spinal injury shape the plot, and in one memorable scene John Bates, personal valet to Lord Grantham, uses a frighteningly painful metal contraption that he hopes will correct his debilitating limp. Call me crazy, but that got me wondering about other questionable medical devices that have been sold throughout history.

Bates bought his limp corrector in World War I-era England, but he certainly wasn’t the first to be duped by medical quackery. In the United States, fraudulent medical devices are as old as the country itself, says Suzanne Junod, a historian at the Food and Drug Administration.

George Washington swore by a set of metal pins called “Perkins Patent Metallic Tractors,” Junod says. Advertisements claimed the pins could channel the body’s electricity “for the Relief of Topical Diseases of the Human Body; and of Horses.” The pins were eventually exposed as a fraud. Surprised?

The modern FDA dates to 1906. But the agency didn’t get into the regulation of medical devices until the passage of a law giving FDA the authority in 1938.

But government involvement couldn’t deter all crafty charlatans. Right after World War II, there was a surge of complicated-looking machines in doctors’ offices. Military surplus knobs, gauges and dials from the war effort were slapped on the front of empty wooden cabinets to create a high-tech look.

“We think now, ‘Wouldn’t you be able to tell [they were frauds]?’ But doctors’ offices really didn’t have a whole lot of equipment at this point,” she says. “It looked kind of impressive.”

One such machine, an orgone accumulator, could supposedly treat epilepsy, high blood pressure and anemia by capturing the energizing force within living things. The Relaxacizor was said to help users lose weight without exercise. The device, featured on Mad Men, reportedly stimulated more than weight loss in female users. Both devices were outlawed by the mid-1960s.

In the early 1970s, infections from the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine contraceptive, left hundreds of thousands of women sterile or injured, says Junod. “It was the tipping point in trying to get control over therapeutic medical devices,” she says.

This case spurred the passage of the Medical Device Amendments of 1976, which laid blueprint for the current set of medical device regulations.

From faulty contact lenses to bone putty that can catch fire, medical devices can still stir controversy. But in contrast to the days of Downton Abbey, there are more people vetting the claims and watching for trouble. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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