History teaches: Quackery – hard to kill. People – not so much.

29 Sep

New Scientist had an article recently describing the history of the use of X-rays as a beauty treatment. Who knew that radiation’s ability to make a person’s hair fall out was once exploited as a hair remover?
Histories: The perils of X-ray hair removal

FOLLOWING Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895, doctors around the world turned their primitive X-ray machines on everything from their own hands to patients with cancer and tuberculosis. To Albert Geyser, a brash German immigrant who graduated from a New York medical school in that heady year of discovery, X-rays were clearly the future of medicine.

Researchers quickly noticed that exposure to X-rays had a remarkable side effect: it made hair fall out. In Austria, physician Leopold Freund recommended it as a treatment for excess body hair, or hypertrichosis. “Hair begins to fall out in thick tufts when lightly grasped, or it is seen on the towel after the patient’s toilet,” he observed in 1899. … Tests followed across Europe and North America with apparent success, … There were already hints that all was not well, however. In France, some doctors reported that their patients had fallen ill. Loath to admit that X-rays were responsible, Freund blamed “the hysterical character” of French patients.

Now working at Cornell Medical College in New York, Geyser embraced X-rays with enthusiasm. Like many others, he paid a high price for his zeal: radiologists were belatedly realising that frequent exposure to X-rays could be dangerous, and Geyser suffered burns that claimed the fingers of his left hand. Undeterred, he invented the Cornell tube – an X-ray vacuum tube of leaded glass with a small aperture of common glass, meant to direct lower-energy, or “ultrasoft”, X-rays directly onto a small area of skin. With the Cornell tube, “the X-ray is robbed of its terrors”, declared The New York Times. By 1908 Geyser had administered about 5000 X-ray exposures with his tube, for a variety of skin ailments. Others remained suspicious of X-rays, and the County Medical Society’s lawyer warned Geyser that “the time is coming soon when if a man is burned, the doctor will be held liable… Don’t use the X-ray unless you know what you are doing with it.”

The article goes on to explain how the use of the Cornell tube’s “ultrasoft” hair-removing rays became known as the “Roentgen therapy for hypertrichosis,.” In 1915, Geyser published an article in, The Journal for Cutaneous Diseases, he assured his readers that “no protection of any kind, either for patient or operator” was needed when using his Cornell tube. In 1924, Dr. Geyser and his son founded Tricho Sales Corporation. They advertised the glories of the Tricho System in hundreds of advertisements that went into newspapers throughout North America. Promises in these ads included: “no injury to skin will result.” Explanations of how it worked noted that it used a “hair starvation process” and that it worked by way of, “radio vibration.” Female relatives of physicians just swore by it, apparently.

Soon there were Tricho clinics in over 75 cities in the U.S.. The process was tidy and painless, the only thing that operators or clients might have noticed was a “faint hum and a whiff of ozone.” The women only need to be exposed to the X-rays for a few minutes, and voila, some time later their hair fell out.

You may be asking, “Approximately, how many women underwent this thoroughly modern beauty treatment?” The New Scientist article says the New York City clinic alone claimed 200,000 clients. These clients would have paid from a “few hundred to over a thousand dollars” for a course of treatments. That’s a huge chunk of change in 1920’s dollars.

OK… so are we all waiting for the other shoe to drop here?

Tricho’s triumph was short-lived.

In 1926, Ida Thomas of Brooklyn sued Frank Geyser (the son) for “a staggering $100,739 – the cost of her facial treatments plus $100,000 in damages.” Ms. Thomas sued because her skin had thickened and wrinkled following the treatments. Two years later Frank Geyser “was arrested following a similar complaint.” Then things got really ugly. Clients now were suffering from “wrinkling, mottling, lesions, ulcers and even skin cancer.” The Journal of the American Medical Association commented on this new health problem, “In their endeavor to remove a minor blemish, they have incurred a major injury.” In July 1929, the AMA condemned the treatment as dangerous.

What was Tricho’s tactical response to all these people–like the AMA–bunch of killjoys–trying to bum them out, bring them down? What action could rescue the Tricho Sales Corporation from losing revenue by the handful, not unlike a radiation poisoning victim losing hair?

Well, if you’ve been following the saga of Defeat Autism Now! and similar groups, and their history of promoting questionable and even plainly dangerous quack therapies, you may have at some point thought to yourself:

“What could rescue autism quackery and it’s adherents from the doldrums induced in part by the death of Abubakar, but also by the criminal charges being brought against the DAN! doctor who killed him, the lack of a promised drop in the numbers of children being diagnosed with autism following the reduction of the use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines, the ridiculous show put on by so-called “expert witnesses” chosen by the Petitioners Steering Committee in the Cedillo vaccine hearing, accumulating evidence tending to exonorate vaccines as not being a cause of autism, and even the exposing of Andrew Wakefield’s seeming ethical problems in his General Medical Counsel hearing in London?”

Or, “What does autism wingnuttery need, right now, to give it life again, you know, fluffliness and bounce and shine, like a good salon-quality shampoo can do for listless hair?” Maybe autism quackery could borrow a page from the Tricho corporation playbook…what DAN! and company needs NOW is and what Tricho Sales Corporation got in their hour of need …

A celebrity endorsement!

Ann Pennington

Ann Pennington, was played as Tricho’s “trump card,” according to the NS article. She was the star of 1929’s hit film, Gold Diggers of Broadway.” The article continues:

And if clients had any lingering doubts, the elder Geyser’s impeccable medical credentials probably reassured them. Yet closer inspection of Geyser’s record would have shown that although he carried out research at a prestigious medical college, some of his work was decidedly dubious: he had used electric shocks to treat all sorts of conditions, from gonorrhoea to asthma, and had made unsubstantiated claims to have found cures for tuberculosis and anaemia.

Inevitably, more Tricho victims appeared in JAMA, including a patient in Washington DC “so depressed as a result of the disfigurement of the X-ray burn that she attempted suicide”. Geyser, it seemed, had either been too greedy to heed any warnings, or had convinced himself that his Cornell tubes really were safe. Whatever his motivation, he had installed poorly regulated X-ray machines across the country, and tens of thousands of women – perhaps even more – were exposed to massive doses of radiation on their faces and arms. They had also received wildly varying doses: some women had as few as four treatments, others as many as 50. And because X-ray exposure rises as an inverse square of distance, even a slight shift in sitting position could double or treble a client’s dose.

With the prospect of being sued for millions of dollars, the Tricho Sales Corporation collapsed in 1930. …

If we all feel a sort of vicarious relief at this point, turns out, it’s premature. Other companies noticing the financial success of the Tricho clinics developed their own “copycat operations.” If the training was miniscule for the Tricho clinicians, it seems that it was even less among these newcomers to the game. Medical and business groups responded by trying to close down these outfits, too. But they just went underground. The article says that in 1940, San Francisco detectives were on the trail of what they thought was an illegal abortion clinic. To their surprise, no doubt, the place in question was instead one of these hair-removal-by-radiation shops. And such shops were still taking in customers “at least” into the 1950’s.

Since all radiation-poisoning “fallout” isn’t noticeable immediately, you can imagine how the story of the customers of the Tricho clinics kept coming up again and again in doctors offices into the 1960’s and 70’s.

One 80-year-old woman arrived with a grapefruit-sized tumour in her head; another refused treatment until she had “a huge and deep crater occupying practically the whole lower half of the breast and the chest wall immediately below it”. By 1970, US researchers were attributing over one-third of radiation-induced cancers in women to X-ray hair removal.

Given cancer’s long latency and the many years that Tricho parlours and their ilk persisted, the procedure may not yet have claimed its final victim. Tricho’s most famous customer, though, had reason long ago to regret her endorsement. After spending her final years as a recluse in a small hotel room off Broadway, Ann Pennington died in 1971. Her cause of death, it was reported, was a brain tumour.

Now, no one is wishing a grapefruit sized tumor on to Jenny McCarthy or anything. For one thing, in the updated case of quack driven nonsense, the gullible celebrity endorser is not the one who is being subjected to questionable therapies. It’s her son. And no one wishes any harm to come to Jenny’s son in the least. He looks like an adorable boy. It’s a shame his mother has been fooled into believing the whole “most of these kids are practically saturated with candida yeast, it’s the reason they go all stimmy … it makes them act crazy…put them on a prescription antifungal and a restrictive diet and you’ll get your kid back,” thing (not to mention the whole anti-vax and autism epidemic thing). If his mom and doc sent a blood sample off to Immunosciences lab before it was closed (this past July) then she likely got a bogus positive result. Then the fool doctor could write a prescription for a toxic antifungal (all drugs are toxic, don’t you know, depends on the dose) that the kid likely didn’t need–just to make mommy feel like she’s doing all she can to “pull her son through a rapidly closing window” and give her something to write about besides.

One really scary lesson from the Tricho debacle is that this deadly quackery hung around for so long. In this case, bad news, the news that these radiation machines could easily cause a client’s slow death, besides creating some really ugly skin, didn’t seem to travel quickly enough. Tricho shut down in 1930, but the technique and hype they developed was still be employed forty years later on new suckers, the ones born every minute. The Candida yeast (as cause of dozens of chronic disorders) business was a stupid health fad in the 1980’s. The fad died for the most part, but apparently Jenny didn’t know about it, or didn’t take a clue from it, and here she is in 2007 promoting it as the thing that stood between her autistic son and being a typical kid.

It was interesting that the Tricho company was founded by an apparently unethical doctor, Albert Geyser, who had a pretty respectible looking CV, and who claimed to have great insights into and treatments for many different diseases. Albert went into business with his son. Hmmm. Who does that remind one of? Someone else with a German name that sounds a bit like Geyser. There’s also a creepy and creepier brother duo in autism quackery with a similarly questionable looking, but less impressive-looking background.

When one compares the seeming safety profile of Mr. and Dr. Yasko’s (and Garry Gordon’s) ridiculous RNA yeast soup, or the homeopathic water drops said to be favored by Katie Wright, with something like Lupron and IV chelation, one can almost be grateful for such benign, if expensive and reprehensibly misrepresented, “cures.” But there are major question-marks hanging over the safety of things like long-term, high-dose methyl B12 injections given to kids who are not deficient in B12. There are questions about high doses of any vitamins for anyone. Some mineral supplements are contaminated with heavy metals, so are some chelators, apparently. Lots of biomedded kids take vitamin and mineral supplements. There are questions about the dangers of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, like what if the kid is susceptible to seizures and you put him in the HBOT tank and the extra oxygen kindles these seizures?

As for the recent Jenny McCarthy road show and it’s effect on the DAN! dox customer base, it’s hard to say who needed whom more–DAN! suffering from a series of bad PR breaks, or Jenny suffering from a sagging career and a failed attempt at making a go with the Indigomom Crystalkid schtick. It’s hard enough for a talented actress to keep getting work at age 35, they say, imagine what it’s like for short-on-talent Jenny with her now famed post-pregnancy stretch-marks “that glow in the dark … for some reason!”.

DAN! and Jenny McCarthy deserve each other. Let’s hope they both quickly skulk out of the limelight and into obscurity and may they take their quack therapies, benign or not, with them.

Paul Collins is the writer of the above mentioned New Scientist article. The writing style would seem to indicate that it’s the same Paul Collins who is the author of the fantastic book, “Not Even Wrong.” If so, this Mr. Collins is the father of a beloved autistic boy.

18 Responses to “History teaches: Quackery – hard to kill. People – not so much.”

  1. Joseph September 29, 2007 at 13:01 #

    The father-son quack team of Geyser & Geyser… too funny AD.

  2. Do'C September 29, 2007 at 15:30 #

    Excellent article Ms. Clark.

  3. Matt September 29, 2007 at 15:46 #

    The fact is, we are no smarter than our parents or grandparents. We just have access to more knowledge.

    If we don’t use that knoweledge, we are stupid.

    Anecdotes are not knowledge. They can be the starting place for creating knowledge, but they aren’t knowledge in themselves.

  4. Ms. Clark September 29, 2007 at 17:56 #

    Thank you, Joseph, Do’C and Matt. 🙂

  5. bullet September 29, 2007 at 18:08 #

    Very thoughtprovoking post.

  6. Navin R. Johnson September 29, 2007 at 19:39 #

    This reminds me of my invention, the Opti-Grab.

  7. Matt September 29, 2007 at 19:43 #

    By the way–great title!

  8. John Fryer September 30, 2007 at 17:00 #

    The story of X rays is new to me.
    We all know how harmful it is and I find it almost impossible to believe that people would use it for the simple action of removing hair.
    As a child I remember the X ray machine for shoes and used it only once for a second. I instinctively new it was stupid.
    I have instinctively resisted all X ray treatment except in emergencies such as when I first started out in teaching. No X ray = No job.
    The burning up of the genital parts of lots of French people in 2007 who were already sick in that region shows exactly how much safety in X rays have advanced. Not much.
    If you look at the history of vaccines you see that many vaccines have had problems and again right up to this year when the latest MMR vaccine had to be withdrawn fortunately by the makers and not by the regulators or we might wait another century.
    It looks as if it is difficult to find any people in medicine doing much that is 100 per cent safe.
    With this it seems that removing mercury after the mercury has killed off the brain cells may well be not a good idea but the fact that mercury comes flooding out shows what?
    Better scientists 2 000 years ago said that heavy metals lead and by inference mercury destroy the mind.
    The evidence today shows that 2 000 year old ideas by these people were 100 per cent correct.
    It is therefore a pity that CDC, FDA and IOM all have commissioned research to show that our IQ’s improve with mercury in the brain.
    This is in stark disagreement with every vaccine maker and manufacturer of mercury products.
    Who is right?
    John Fryer Chemist

  9. Ms. Clark September 30, 2007 at 17:28 #

    The mercury in thimerosal in vaccines has never been shown to “kill” one brain cell. Gimme a break.

    My mommy instinct says you make up your mind about things and call it “instinct” instead of looking at the facts. Your “instinct” about xrays may have served you well, or may have made you overly cautious, but your “instinct” about mercury stinks. You are pushing mercury phobia and untruths about mercury, making it sound much, much more scary than it is. We are surrounded by mercury, that is what “ubiquitous” means. In fact the precious Boyd Haley says high fructose corn syrup (which is in tons of foods and beverages) is high in mercury (I’m not sure I’d believe anything Haley says, but if you think he’s a saint, then maybe you should develop an “instinct” to fear the mercury in Coca-Cola and Pepsi as made here in the States.

    Here’s an acronym for a mercury-phobe org…feel free to use it.
    High Fructose Corn Syrup Causes Autism Ban It Now!

  10. Gonzo September 30, 2007 at 17:34 #

    We’d better ban fish too. It’s loaded with mercury.

    While we’re at it, let’s change the name of the planet Mercury to something else, lest that be causing autism too.


  11. Matt September 30, 2007 at 17:56 #

    While we’re at it, let’s change the name of the planet Mercury to something else, lest that be causing autism too.

    Can you absolutely prove that calling the planet “mercury” has not resulted in any extra people to have autism?

    Isn’t it odd that autism was first found in the United States…at a time when mercury dimes were being handled by pregnant mothers? If you want to call it a coincidence….you’d be right!

  12. Gonzo September 30, 2007 at 18:11 #

    Holy cow, Matt! You’re right!

    ‘m going to start protesting Ford too. How dare they make Mercury Mountaineers and Mercury Grand Marquis cars. I’m positive that my child must have touched one of those cars in the parking lot and got autism from them.

  13. Joseph September 30, 2007 at 21:08 #

    It couldn’t have been Mercury. Pluto, on the other hand, was discovered in 1930, only a few years before the first children described by Kanner were born. Coincidence? You’d have to be very closed-minded not to consider it.

  14. notpluto October 1, 2007 at 01:15 #

    Well it’s not Pluto!

  15. Ms. Clark October 1, 2007 at 01:34 #

    Martha Stewart has been promoting mercury glass as highly collectible… she’s been a friend of Bill Gates… Gates is part of the Illuminati… just ask David Ayoub…
    Martha Stewart became popular just at the time the autism diagnoses began to climb…

    Martha Stewart causes autism… obviously.

  16. Sullivan October 1, 2007 at 03:53 #


    don’t make me laugh like that! People will think I am (more) strange.

    Videotapes with Pluto increased in number dramatically in the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s…kid’s watched them…So, Pluto is the real environmental trigger?

    You know, after watching Pluto cartoons my kids go through a bout of repetitive motion (clapping).

    Don’t put down my mommy instinct!

  17. Mark Ridinger, MD October 4, 2007 at 09:12 #

    For a fascinating look at the epistemology of quackery, and the new dangerous “meme” that is among us, and making the Nutraceutical-Industrial Complex very wealthy at the expensive of many, see this month’s Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

    Free link: http://www.nature.com/clpt/journal/v82/n4/full/6100354a.html

  18. Kev October 4, 2007 at 22:06 #

    Thanks for the link – good read!

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