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Cat Phrenology and Other Wacky Stuff

November 06, 2000|By Rosie Mestel

This morning I conducted a phrenology test on my cat.

The cat was on my chest; I absently started to stroke her, noting the bumps and indentations in her skull.

And then I remembered the book I'd been reading the night before: "Quack!" by Bob McCoy (Santa Monica Press, due out this month). The 235-page book is filled with some of the most crackpot medical theories and devices charlatans have come up with and gotten rich from.

I'd been enthralled by descriptions of Dr. Scott's Electric Hair Brush--guaranteed to prevent premature graying, cure dandruff, prevent baldness and headaches. I'd been captivated by the Blowena, a trumpet-like device purported to restore normal hearing when you blew in it, and Actina, a stinky, onion-smelling device that let "the blind see! the deaf hear!"

And I'd cringed throughout the chapter filled with a century of devices touted to cure sexual problems, gadgets with names like: the Electric Developer for Men, the Saddle and the Recto Rotor: "the latest and most efficient invention for the quick relief of constipation and prostate trouble." Then I'd read the chapter on psychology, filled with cute 19th century pictures of people's heads, their skulls divided into sectors with words such as "fear," "memory" and "ambition" written on them. According to the old theory of phrenology, prominences in a particular region meant you were strong in a trait; indentations meant you were weak in it.

OK, I know that phrenology is a sham, a fraud, unproven by science. But I have to admit that when I caressed that cat's skull and felt a huge bump in her "appetite" sector, another in her "self-esteem" sector and a definite indentation in the "veneration" sector . . . I wondered for a moment. I truly did.

A Really Hot Fad

One of the nuttiest fads covered in the book is the radium craze, which hit its peak at the start of the 20th century.

Scientists had just discovered radioactivity and had found that the radioactive element radium could be used to attack cancer cells. Soon products containing radium were cropping up everywhere. This stuff was powerful!

You could buy all manner of "radium water dispensers"--containers lined with radioactive ore so your family could drink radioactive water (reaching levels five times higher than what are permitted in water today).

You could buy radium liniment ointment for aching joints and muscles; you could buy radium bath salts, eyewashes, cold creams, suppositories and healing pads.

At first, this wasn't a fad involving just outlying quacks: Some regular doctors also prescribed radium water, gave patients radium injections and applied radium topically. One sanitarium even had a radium-inhaling room. When WWI broke out, U.S. Surgeon Gen. Rupert Blue reassured the populace that it shouldn't be bereft at being cut off from European spas: "It will be a simple matter to charge pure water with radium and use it for drinking, inhaling or bathing purposes," he said.

Radium remained unregulated for the early part of the 20th century because a 1906 law designed to protect consumers didn't apply: Radium was classified as a natural element, not a drug. (Sound familiar?)

Between 1927 and 1930, a rich young dandy named Eben Byers drank 1,400 bottles of a particularly potent radium water called "Radithor"--and fell desperately ill, his body racked with aches and pains, his teeth falling out, his skull developing holes. He died March 31, 1931.

In 1989, a scientist found five bottles of Radithor at an antique store and decided to test one in his lab. It was still dangerously radioactive, 70 years after they'd been sold.


If you have an idea for a topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,

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