The history of radionics begins with the discoveries of Dr. Albert Abrams around the beginning of the 20th Century. Abrams was a respectable physician who began to pursue his theories of diseases having specific vibratory rates that could be detected by tapping on the patient’s abdomen or spine.
He refined his diagnostic techniques with invented devices such as the “dynamizer.” According to Martin Gardiner, in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science:
It was a box containing an insane jungle of wires. One wire ran to an electrical source, and another was attached to the forehead of a healthy person. A drop of blood was obtained from the patient, on a piece of filter paper, and placed inside the box. Abrams would then percuss (tap) the abdomen of a healthy person, who was stripped to the waist and always — for a reason never made too clear — facing west. By listening to the sounds, the doctor was able to diagnose the ills of the patient…
Not only that, but without the patient even being present, Abrams could tell the patient’s age, sex and religion. If a drop of blood from the patient was not available, a lock of hair or even a handwriting sample was enough (he diagnosed ills of long-dead historical personalities in this manner).
After the dynamizer came the “oscilloclast” and the “reflexophone.” His disciples were never permitted to examine the wiring in the boxes, which were rented to trained practitioners. Gardner again:
Shortly before the doctor’s death, however, a committee of scientists opened one of the magic boxes and issued a report on what they found. It contained an ohm-meter, rheostat, condenser, and other electrical gadgets all wired together without rhyme or reason.
Since patients did not have to be physically present to be diagnosed by the devices, a thriving industry was created in which people could send in blood samples and receive diagnoses through the mail. Some sceptics took advantage of this anonymity. Blood from a rooster was sent to Abrams, who diagnosed “malaria, cancer, diabetes, and two venereal diseases.”
Among Dr. Abrams’ converts was author Upton Sinclair, who wrote that Abrams “has made the most revolutionary discovery of this or any other age. I venture to stake whatever reputation I ever hope to have that he has discovered the great secret of the diagnosis and cure of all major diseases.” Further, Abrams had treated “over fifteen thousand people, and my investigation convinces me he has cured over ninety-five percent.”
Gardiner sums up Sinclair’s many apologetics for Abrams as a “clinically perfect statement of the persistence of irrational belief on the part of a convert to a totally worthless set of theories hatched in the brain of a brilliant paranoid.” High critical praise, indeed.
Dr. Ruth Drown took things a step further, able to not only diagnose but to cure from a distance — any distance — as long as the operator of her Homo-Vibra Ray mechanism had a blood sample from the patient on-hand. Not only that, but the device could create X-Ray-like pictures of the patient remotely.
In 1950, the University of Chicago formed a committee to investigate Dr. Drown’s methods at work — she had been having remarkable success in finding enthusiastic promoters, including… well, read between the lines in the university’s announcement:
On the face of it, the Drown claims appear to be totally unworthy of serious consideration by anyone, least of all a university. However, certain friends who are members of lay boards that have been of great assistance to the university have urged that the Drown claims be investigated so that they may be repudiated if found unworthy or adapted to the benefit of mankind if they should prove to be worthy.
It wasn’t even close. In her first test, Dr. Drown took six photographs using her machine on blood samples. None were clear enough for her to base a diagnosis on. The testing committee decided that
the film images which have intrigued Mrs. Drown and her disciples are simple fog patterns produced by exposure of the film to white light before it has been fixed adequately. These images are significantly identical regardless of whether or not the film is placed in Mrs. Drown’s machine before being submitted to the highly unorthodox processing which has been devised by her. In the numerous old films shown us by Mrs. Drown we can see no resemblance to the anatomical structures, appliances, bacteria, etc., that Mrs. Drown professes to see.
Test two, a diagnostic test using blood samples was equally disastrous. Healthy patients and ones with obvious medical problems were remotely diagnosed by Dr. Drown as suffering from a motley assortment of maladies. After badly misdiagnosing three patients, the remaining seven tests were abandoned. According to the testing committee:
The machine is a sort of Ouija board. It is our belief that her alleged successes rest solely on the noncritical attitude of her followers. Her technic is to find so much trouble in so many organs that usually she can say ‘I told you so’ when she registers an occasional lucky positive guess. In these particular tests, even this luck deserted her.
Test three tested the healing powers of Dr. Drown’s machines. Drown had claimed to have treated the hemorrhaging of a traffic accident victim in Italy by using her machine in California. She was confident she’d be able to stop the bleeding of two lab animals from one room over. Two dogs had their arteries perforated; two dogs bled to death; the committee report:
In the opinion of all observers, including herself, Mrs. Drown failed completely to control or modify hemorrhage.
Spectacular failures such as these have hardly slowed the radionics industry. Indeed, if the links in the column to the right are any indication, radionics is going strong.
The modern radionics expert, with her thousand-dollar medical dowsing rod, her extensive training in the subtleties of homeopathic diagnostic samples and remote healing, her wholesale appropriation of respectable-sounding medical terminology and trendy new-age jargon — what are we to make of her and her practice?
It’s cheap and easy to determine that the apparatus and theory of radionics is complete bunk. The fact is, though, that as a form of faith healing it does heal some people with remarkable success, and a success that medical science might be unable to match with its techniques.
Medicine has long acknowledged that in order to scientifically test the efficacy of a new medicine, for instance, it must be compared to the effects of a placebo administered with equal solemnity, ritual and belief. This is because the solemnity and ritual and belief can themselves heal.
Establishment medicine often seems to treat this as an inconvenient fog that makes the respectable diagnosis of physical ailments with chemical remedies more difficult.
Faith healers, like radionics practitioners, use placebo healing as a technology, intuiting that to master the authoritative trappings of a cure may heal more patients than a conservative and prudent scientific diagnosis and treatment.
An establishment physician diagnoses depression from a checklist of symptoms, represented in a patient’s case history and in interviews with the patient. He knows that scientific, double-blind tests have shown that chemicals that inhibit the “reuptake” of “serotonin” can cause the patients depression-indicative symptoms to lessen or disappear.
The radionics practitioner discovers from the patient, who describes himself as depressed, overworked and struggling with the challenges of raising teenagers, clues as to where disturbances in the “subtle energy fields” that create the multidimensional interference pattern that is the patient’s body and life may be found. She knows from her training and experience that by using her precision instrument, she can influence not only the patient’s bodily health but the very circumstances of his life that are causing him distress.
In some patients, a placebonic cure of their love-lives or their terrible commute or rotten landlord — or perhaps more importantly, the treatment by a medical practitioner who agrees that these environmental irritants are to blame (at least in part) for the problem — may lead to better results for the patient than all the scientifically-proven treatments of scientific medicine.
I happen to believe in the nostrums and rituals of establishment medicine, and I have no patience for a healer who wants to clear my chakras with tachyonic chi-crystals. But, on the other hand, an MD in a white lab coat with a stethiscope can boggle me with equally nonsensical diagnoses and courses of treatment, expressed in a language that I respect (even if I don’t fully understand) and have confidence in, and I’m sold.
So here’s an ethical question for Dr. Reader: If you have no idea what is wrong with a patient and don’t really know how to proceed or know of no therapy that’s likely to promote healing for a particular patient — are you honest with your patient?
Is it better to honestly confess the limitations of medical knowledge and technique, or is it better to put your hard-earned trappings of medical authority to good use in the “theatrapeutical” creation of a potent placebo cure?
|On This Day in Snigglery||August 1, 1956: The papers finally leak the truth about Jean Shepherd’s great I, Libertine hoax. (See I, Libertine for more info)|