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The Electronic Reactions of Albert Abrams

Richard Van Vleck
From American Artifacts No.39

In the first quarter of the 20th century, Albert Abrams, M.D. devised what may be the greatest medical hoax of all time. His credentials as a medical man, combined with the public's fascination with and lack of understanding of the newly introduced radio set the stage for the marvelous theatrics which still play today in some bizarre corners of the "New Age" movement.

Albert Abrams, a native of San Francisco, received an M.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 1882 at 18-20 years old, depending on which of several recorded birth dates is correct. In 1889, he became vice-president of the California State Medical Society. Beginning in 1893 he was professor of pathology at Cooper Medical College. In the same year he was elected president of the San Francisco Medico-Chirurgical Society. In 1904 Abrams published The Blues - Splanchnic Neurasthenia, which seemed not to arouse much suspicion from his profession. In 1909 he published Spinal Therapeutics, and in 1910 Spondylotherapy - his first real venture into quackdom (pounding on the spine to cure). This did bring suspicion from some of his colleagues. In 1916 he published New Concepts in Diagnosis and Treatment, thus launching the ERA, or Electronic Reactions of Abrams.

According to ERA, all diseases have there own "vibratory rate" which can be measured and treated with his electronic boxes. He began publishing the journal Physico-Clinical Medicine and invented instruments for diagnosis and treatment by the ERA method. Abrams went on to perfect his technique so that only a drop of blood or even a sample of the patient's handwriting would suffice as a specimen for his machine. Once diagnosed, the patient required several weeks of treatments with appropriate vibratory waves from the oscilloclast, at a cost, of course.

3500 practitioners were using Abrams machines at the height of his popularity, in 1923. The oscilloclasts were leased for $200 down and $5 per month ($250 down if for DC current). The oscilloclast was sealed and the lessee had to sign a contract not to open it.

Abrams organized the American Electronic Research Association and sought out osteopaths to become his trained practitioners. However, soon other companies were manufacturing a variety of ERA magic boxes and selling to chiropractors and probably to anyone who could see a future in being an ERA practitioner.

Abrams' diagnostic equipment consisted primarily of a variety of simple resistance boxes, often called Reflexophones, wired in series. A typical setup included the "dynamizer", which was a sample holder with 3 electrodes. The patient's blood sample on paper was placed on two electrodes to ground and the third electrode was connected to the "rheostatic dynamizer". This, in turn, was connected to the "vibratory rate rheostat", which was connected to the "measuring rheostat". The final connection was to an electrode on the forehead of a healthy third party.

The healthy stand-in, called the "reagent" would face west with an electrode on his forehead, and standing on a rubber mat. The quack then percussed the "reagent's" abdomen to detect areas of resonance or dullness. Exactly where this dullness was detected and at what "rate" (as measured in Ohms by varying the resistance in the system) determined which disease was diagnosed. This technique allowed diagnosis of all diseases. Abrams began to make other astounding claims for his rheostat boxes - he could tell the religion of a person from one drop of blood by percussing someone else's belly. If a drop of blood was not provided, he could also use a slip of paper with the patient's handwriting or a strand of hair, or even a photograph.

To cure the patient, he would set the oscilloclast to the same rate as the disease diagnosed and the vibrations from the machine would annihilate the disease vibrations. For this reason, the oscilloclast was sometimes referred to as the "wave smasher". Several serious diseases were usually diagnosed for each patient - but - no problem - the oscilloclast could cure all.

In 1923, a US patent was granted to Sam Hoffman, of San Francisco, for a pendulum circuit breaker for Abrams' oscilloclast. This improvement did away with a large motor seen in the early models (as illustrated in The Lancet, Jan 26, 1924), and probably lowered the cost of production, now that several thousand units were required by Abrams' cultists. Actually, the patients would more appropriately be called cultists, since the term implies true believers. The licensed practitioners were likely not believers in the ERA, but only in the profit.

In 1922 Dr. Jean du Plessis published The Electronic Reactions of Abrams Exactions and Ichnography. Other companies were beginning to market clones of the oscilloclast. More books and articles began to appear espousing the wonders of the ERA method of diagnosing and treating all diseases.

The response of rational science

In 1922, short articles began to appear in JAMA exposing Abrams' ERA, as well as letters from concerned physician members, whose patients had been diagnosed by an Abrams follower. Articles were also run in Hygeia, exposing Abrams and the ERA. The April 8, 1922 issue of JAMA ran a letter from a German doctor, asking if Abrams credentials had ever been thoroughly checked. He questioned the claim of having received an M.D. from the University of Heidelberg at age 20. Actually he could have been only 18, since his birth date is recorded as 1862, 63, and 64 in various sources, apparently because Abrams returned AMA Directory and other forms with each of these dates at different times. The Heidelberg degree was confirmed by the AMA. However, his degree from the University of Portland, also listed in his credentials, was not, because no record of such a university could be found.

The April 29, 1922 issue of JAMA, contains a long letter from the well-know writer, Upton Sinclair, in defense of Abrams and the ERA. Sinclair had a previous history of devotion to fad diets, and, no doubt, was a useful tool in Abrams P.R. arsenal, due to his celebrity status. Sinclair had first hand knowledge of the ERA operation, from interviewing hundreds of ERA practitioners as well as his association with Abrams, himself. Some interesting information was included in his letter to JAMA. He justified Abrams charging $250 down for his oscilloclast and $5 per month, by mentioning that many ERA practitioners made up to $1000 to $2000 per week, using a single oscilloclast. And, he claimed the average charge by ERA practitioners was $200 for a guaranteed cure of syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer, and sarcoma.

All of the anecdotal information in the various journal articles suggests that most, if not all patients sending a blood sample to Abrams were diagnosed as having multiple serious diseases - most frequently syphilis, tuberculosis, and cancer. Perhaps Abrams thought that anyone desperate enough to send off a blood sample through the mail for "radio diagnosis" expected and feared the worst. And, assuring an easy cure for a few hundred dollars made the shocking diagnosis less troubling. It has also been suggested that the almost universal diagnosis of syphilis was to cause patients who suspected fraud to keep quiet to avoid the public embarassment. Even a diagnosis of cancer was associated with shame, however the reason so many cancer diagnoses were made may be that the gullable patient would feel he had little to lose by passing on conventional medicine of the 1920's. Sinclair claimed that Abrams had diagnosed over 15,000 people by 1922 and had cured 95% of those who had taken his treatment. The June, 1922 issue of Pearson's Magazine carried an article by Sinclair on the Electronic Reactions of Abrams. Alexander Marky, the editor of Pearson's Magazine was a staunch supporter of Abrams quackery, and ran numerous articles on the subject in 1922.

The Scientific American reports on Abrams began in Oct 1923, and continued for 1 year, during which time Abrams died (Jan 13, 1924), from pneumonia. He died a millionaire. The twelfth and final installment of the report was printed in the Scientific American of Sept, 1924. The conclusion was "The so-called Electronic Reactions of Abrams do not exist - they are merely products of the Abrams practitioner's mind. These so-called reactions are without diagnostic value. And, the Abrams oscilloclast, intended to restore the proper electronic conditions in the diseased body, is barren of real therapeutic value. The entire Abrams electronic technique is not worthy of serious attention in any of its numerous variations. At best, it is all an illusion. At worst, it is a colossal fraud".

Nobel prize winner, Prof R.A. Millikan examined Abrams boxes in Oct, 1923, in connection with a court case. Millikan's conclusion was "It's a contraption which 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."

An extensive article in the Jan 26, 1924 issue of The Lancet details the Abrams technique as well as some of the more outlandish claims and results of some fake samples sent to ERA practitioners. Sending healthy chicken or guinea pig blood to an ERA quack always yielded a diagnosis of several major diseases, all of which could be cured with the oscilloclast.

The June 7 and Oct 11, 1924 issues of Nature ran short articles on the "Abrams cult", calling the dynamizer a childish toy which defies all the laws of electrical science. The May 23, 1925 issue of the same journal addressed the ERA again (since it hadn't gracefully disappeared in the ensuing months). This time they addressed the Horder report, a study of the ERA equipment and technique done in England by Sir Thomas Horder. ERA proponents claimed that this report gave credibility to the practice. Opponents said it demonstrated nothing. The instrument tested was Boyd's Emanometer, rather than Abrams' resistance boxes. Possibly conditions imposed by Boyd after utterly failing the first tests may have allowed faking of subsequent testing done at Boyd's home, which seemed to indicate that the sample did have some effect on the percussion results.

An article in the Scientific Monthly in 1925 describes Abrams as a "queer freak" who coined unintelligible words and grossly misunderstood such terms as watts, ohms, amperes and volts.

The ERA after Abrams' death

In 1925, G. Laughton Scott wrote The Abrams Treatment in Practise, including in the appendix the report on the Oscilloclast submitted by Ackerman and Clark. This was a study of the electrical phenomena associated with the device and did not address any medical effect it might have. The oscilloclasts these men examined had oscillating armatures and likely incorporated Hoffman's patent. Early oscilloclasts, such as the one illustrated in the Lancet, Jan 26, 1924, had a rotary motor driving a circuit breaker. The device they inspected oscillated 98 times per second, with the medical circuit made and broken 196 times per second. The "reagent" was wired with only one electrode from the device (lucky for him) and sat on a chair isolated from the ground by glass cups under each leg. The "reagent's" feet rested on a rubber pad, to provide further insulation from ground. Ackerman was able to measure a slight current passing through the reagent due to leakage to ground. This fact was used by many proponents of the ERA to counter the Scientific American report which claimed no electrical effect because the circuit was not completed.

Also in 1925, another detailed report on the electrical properties of the oscilloclast was included in a book by Sir James Barr, one of the foremost proponents of the ERA in England, and a past president of the British Medical Assoc. The book was Abrams' Methods of Diagnosis and Treatment, and this investigation into the inner workings of the oscilloclast and its operation was performed by Prof. E. Taylor Jones, a physics professor at University College, Bangor. His findings were similar to Ackerman's.

John S. White wrote a book entitled The Voice from out the Shadows of the Grave, in 1925, as a defence of the ERA and of Abrams, even including a poem to and portrait of Abrams. Of the various ardent supporters of ERA, it is impossible to tell which were being duped and which were in collusion with Abrams.

In 1928, Dr. H.H. Wilkinson published The New Concept of Diagnosis and Treatment, a book espousing the ERA and attempting to explain its use. This book demonstrates a significant advancement of the state of ERA in just 3 years. Wilkinson uses the term radio waves freely in his discussion and refers to the oscilloclast as a miniature radio transmitter. The healthy human "reagent" was still used, and percussing was still the method of detection.

He also describes Planetary and Earth electrical charges. Normal, healthy tissue have these two charges in the ratio of 246 2/10 units planetary positive charges to 153 8/10 units negative charges. He also describes further research on Abram's death rate - a vibratory rate which would show whether the donor of a blood sample was still alive. Wilkinson, tested a blood sample every few minutes, of a patient miles away, watching the death reaction increase and the vitality "rate" decrease until it ceased. A phone call was then made to the residence of the deceased to verify that he had died and the exact time.

It is clear from Wilkinson's book that ERA did not die with Abrams. The Electronic Research Association continued to meet in Chicago and several similar quack organizations appeared. Comments on a joint meeting of these organizations appeared in JAMA in 1926, titled The Birds Flock Together. Interest in ERA had a resurgence with Ruth Drown, in the 1930's and is very much alive today in the "NewAge" movement. Some of the modern equivalents of the oscilloclast cost $2500 and even still use the Abrams or Drown "rates" to diagnose and treat disease.

IMAGE An ERA diagnostician at work, from Jean du Plessis, 1922, The Electronic Reactions of Abrams Exactions and Ichnography.

IMAGE The physical layout of an ERA diagnosis room, It was always necessary for the reagent or patient to stand facing west. From du Plessis, 1922.

IMAGE The electronic apparatus of Abrams. From du Plessis, 1922.

IMAGE Diagram of the oscilloclast of Abrams. From Scott, 1925

IMAGE Sam Hoffman's 1923 patent for the pendulum circuit breaker which gave Abram's oscilloclast its ticking sound.

IMAGE Dr. Abrams percussing a reagent. From Hudgings' 1923 booklet, Dr. Abrams and the Electron Theory.

IMAGE Connections to the reagent. From Barr, 1925, Abrams' Methods of Diagnosis and Treatment.

IMAGE Diagram of connections of an Oscilloclast. From Barr, 1925.

The Electronic Research Laboratories diagnostic machine
An ERA diagnostic device from Chicago, ca. 1925.

The Radio Disease Killer
One of the rarest ERA machines.

other quack medical articles American Artifacts home page

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Contact: Richard Van Vleck