What can we learn from obsolete medical equipment — or is it pure quackery?

Jan 26, 2016

For more than 30 years, Steve Erenberg has collected early scientific and medical instruments. Victorian medical masks, surreal anatomical models, and futuristic test prostheses pack the display cases of his store/museum in Peekskill, New York.

There are giant eyeballs, a life-size paper mache model of a horse and disembodied faces. 

“I mean, there’s nothing sinister in this collection,” Erenberg says. “People look and they say, ‘Oh, what is that? Is that S&M?’ Or, ‘Is that a torture device?’ No. They’re medical devices or they’re life-saving devices.”

Erenberg says he failed some of his early science classes. He collects these things more for their aesthetic value than their scientific worth. 

“A lot of these objects have character, you can sense it. They have an aura about them,” Erenberg says. 

Some items in the collection are obviously quack devices, designed to fool patients into thinking they were receiving a treatment. Erenberg says there’s an easy way to pick out the quackery. 

“If you look at early quack devices, they’re designed to be better looking than their purpose ... the more important it looked, the better people thought it worked and the more money the doctor would get,” Erenberg says.

Still, many of the items that were considered state of the art for their time are now obsolete or even dangerous. It makes Erenberg reflect on which of our state of the art medical devices will be laughed at in future decades. 

“I can't help but think when I see some of these new devices that are being used with new materials that 100 years from now we’ll be looking back at them and laughing and calling them quack devices,” Erenberg says. “But that's what science is. We always think we’re state of the art and we're ahead of our time and it will never get any more modern than that. But it's always changing.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Science Friday.