The Strangest and Most Terrifying Medical Devices Throughout History

Chemist Wright H. Langham (1911-1972) with Plastic Man, a model used to simulate human radiation exposures, 1959. Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Just like most of the sciences, the history of medicine is filled with insane quackery and a fair few pints of blood. Along with these misled ventures into treating the human body, many budding entrepreneurs were right behind them, ready to peddle a bunch of madcap inventions and pseudoscientific medical devices.

Here's a round-up of the most bizarre or terrifying medical devices through the ages, most of which would give the FDA a panic attack. It seems like the cure was often worse than the ailment.

Butt-Smokin' Tobacco Enema Kits

When tobacco first came over from the New World, many Western doctors thought it could hold some medicinal properties. Somehow, this quackery created the tobacco smoke enema, literally blowing smoke up your ass to treat everything from colds to cholera. It was also popularly used to revive victims of drowning accidents.

Salesmen were quick to jump on the fad and develop specialized tobacco smoke enemas, complete with a pigskin bellow. After all, anything else would just look stupid.

The height of technology: A doctor administers a tobacco smoke enema to a patient. Source Unknown

Radiation-Infused Water Filters

Some 100 years ago, just after Marie Curie was pioneering research on radioactivity, humans thought it would be a good idea to actively add radiation to drinking water (it definitely was not a good idea).

It’s believed this idea kicked off because a few well-known natural hot springs were radioactive. Hot spas are good for your health, so perhaps radiation was the decisive factor. Water tanks – called fancy names like Revigator, Radium Spa, and Zimmer Emanator – hit the market with the purpose of adding low levels of radiation to drinking water. Once such device, the Radium Ore Revigator, was a water cooler lined with carnotite – an ore of uranium and radium that undergoes radioactive decay and yields radon gas. Yum? 

One of its most famous advocates Eben Byers, a US socialite and athlete, died in 1932 from cancerous tumors after being prescribed radium dissolved in water.

A filter used to produce radioactive water, England, 1901-1930. Science Museum, London. CC BY 4.0

Radiation Dummies

Back when the US and the USSR were obsessed with giving each other radiation poisoning, scientists used these dummies (top image) to simulate human radiation exposure.

Although undeniable creepy, these dummies were downright better than the other attempts to study the health effects of radiation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Plutonium Files details how various US government agencies carried out numerous radiation exposure experiments on US soldiers, the testicles of prisoners, pregnant women, mentally disabled children, and dead bodies stolen from graveyards.

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