There is often a fine line between a quack and a visionary. Nicola Tesla, Joseph Lister and others, who were ridiculed at first, crossed that line when their discoveries were proven to be true. Dr Albert Abrams also crossed that line, but going in the opposite direction. He was a most unlikely candidate for such a voyage.
Abrams was born in San Francisco in 1863 and his brilliance was recognized at an early age. When he was only 19, Abrams received a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg, then the finest medical school in the world. Abrams continued his studies in the capitals of Europe and returned to California to begin his practice. In 1889 he was elected vice-president of the California State Medical Association. In 1893 he became a full professor of Pathology and director of the medical clinic of Cooper Medical College, which later became Stanford University. From 1904 until his death Abrams was president of the Emanu-El clinic. He helped pioneer new medical devices, such as X-rays and fluoroscopes. Abrams became a recognized expert in the field of neurology and his books on diseases of the heart and clinical diagnoses became standards in the field. As time went on Abrams became critical of the German dominated medical establishment but it wasn’t until his discovery of spondylotherapy, in 1908, that he crossed the line from visionary heights to quack valley.
The early 20th Century was a time of great developments and competing theories in medicine. Electricity was still a new discovery and it was thought by many to have curative powers. Alternative medical approaches, such as chiropractics and osteopathy believed that a host of diseases could by cured by bone and muscle manipulation. Abram’s invention, spondylotherapy, combined both elements.
Abrams claimed that careful and repetitive stimulation of the spinal column using an electric vertical percussion vibrator could diagnose almost all medical problems. But Abrams was just getting started. He invented the Dynamizer, an amazing machine that could, based on a single drop of blood from a patient, determine not only the illnesses with which the patient was afflicted, but the patient’s age, sex, race and even religion.
Abrams would place the blood sample in the Dynamizer, which was connected to the forehead of a healthy male lab assistant, who stood stripped to the waist, facing west, under dim lighting conditions. The Dynamizer was switched on, and Abrams tapped the abdomen of his lab assistant, interpreting the vibratory patterns this produced into his diagnosis and personality profile.
But science marches on. Abrams came up with a new machine, the Oscilloclast, which could cure whatever illnesses the Dynamizer identified. Abrams theorized that every disease has its rate of vibration and that drugs that treat these diseases also have a definite vibration rate. The Oscilloclast was able to produce vibrations at different rates. So, by adjusting the Oscilloclast to the frequency of the curative drug, the Oscilloclast would produce the therapeutic action of the drug and cure the patient. He modestly called this practice ERA or Electrical Reactions of Abrams.
Rather than sell the Oscilloclasts, which were nicknamed “magic boxes,” Abrams leased them to future practitioners. These practitioners, who paid $200 for training, agreed to kick back a percentage of their profits and to never open the boxes. As the money rolled in, Abrams bought a mansion in Sea Cliff and furnished it with a library of rare books, a pipe organ and an impressive collection of Asian art.
Though the medical establishment was outraged, the press was delighted.
Dr. Abrams looked and sounded impressive, he made amazing claims and his stories sold newspapers. The papers took a “balanced” approach. Rather than investigating the truth of his claims they would give the medical association a paragraph to attack Abrams. Then they would then give Abrams three paragraphs to portray himself as a pioneer besieged by jealous competitors. That kind of shoddy journalism could never happen today, of course!
In 1921, fifty years before DNA testing, a Superior Court judge used the results of Abrams’ Oscillator test to determine a child’s legitimacy. The judge’s action inspired a strong opposite reaction from the scientific community.
A Dr. Buckley sent Abrams a sample of his own blood and that of his son and asked Abrams to determine the child’s paternity. Abram’s tested the blood and claimed that the sample was not human. Buckley replied “What am I, a fish?” and took the story to the newspapers.
Scientific American spent a year investigating Abrams’ claims. They sent an ERA practitioner six vials, each containing a germ culture of a specific disease, and asked him to analyze the vials. The practitioner did not get a single one right. For example, he identified the vial containing pnermacoccus as a combination of syphilis, tuberculosis, streptococcus, malaria and the flu.
When Nobel Prize winner, Professor
R.A. Millikan, examined the Oscilloclast he said “It might have been thrown together by a ten year old boy who knows a little about electricity to mystify an eight year old boy who knows nothing about it.” The man who built the boxes told investigators that Abrams paid him thirty dollars per box and told him that the arrangement of wires inside was not important.
Under pressure and in failing health, Abrams made another prognostication. He predicted that he would die in 1924 and on Jan. 14 of that year. He was proven correct.
Abrams left the bulk of his multi million-dollar estate to build a college of Electrical Medicine. But without Abrams’ personality ,Electrical Medicine fizzled and the proposed college became a hotel.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit to www.crookstour.com.