Keeping track of quackery

Exhibits: With a sense of humor, a museum and its Web site show the claims and faults of decades of discredited medical technology.

June 14, 1999|By James Romenesko | James Romenesko,Knight Ridder / Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS -- Bob McCoy looks a bit silly with the white helmet-like device on his head, and he knows it.

"This is supposed to grow hair back," the 72-year-old director of the Museum of Questionable Devices tells a young girl who inspects him with a smile.

The visitor from Canada giggles with her parents as McCoy removes the contraption and brushes his bald head. He swears to them that he has a little more hair now.

Of course he doesn't, and that's why the device sits in his one-room Minneapolis museum packed with old technologies invented by medical shysters. McCoy has an anecdote for each of them.

"Our most unpleasant display is in this glass case here," he says. "It's a prostate gland warmer that was patented in 1918. It's supposed to excite a man's 'abdominal brain' to relieve disease and restore the sex drive."

McCoy boasts that he has "the largest collection of medical chicanery and mayhem ever assembled under one roof."

He has the Foot-Operated Breast Enlarger Pump, which sold for $9.95 in 1976 and had millions of buyers. His MacGregor Rejuvenator supposedly reversed the aging process when a person stepped inside it. Something called The Polizer not only was meant to turn water into an arthritis cure, but it supposedly made bad wine taste good.

"About a third of the things here are on loan" from the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the St. Louis Science Center, the National Council Against Health Fraud or other agency or organization, McCoy said. He picks up a trinket that he says is called the Accu-Stop 2000.

"Did you know that the three nerves that regulate your appetite terminate in your right ear?" he asks. "Well, this little plastic device, you put this in your left ear, and it neutralizes those nerve impulses from your stomach so you don't feel as hungry. People testified they lost 20, 30 pounds a month. The government outlawed them a couple of years ago and burned $150,000 worth of them in a Florida hospital."

His collection of quack devices caught the attention of talk-show host David Letterman's staff in the 1980s, and McCoy has trekked to New York a few times to demonstrate the goods on national television. The most popular item -- and the one that brings cash into the museum -- is the phrenology machine, a contraption resembling a salon hair dryer that "reads" a person's skull.

"The machine measures the shape of your head and prints out a paper tape that tells your personality," says McCoy, who lugs the device to conventions and other gatherings to do readings.

The museum began in 1984 in Minneapolis after McCoy was given phrenology machines.

"I got 15 them and tried selling them, but nobody wanted them," he says. So, he set them up at a mall and read people's heads.

"One day two women came by and had their heads examined, and one woman asked if the machines were portable and wondered if she could take one into St. Paul to read Willard Scott's head live on TV" during a nearby appearance.

McCoy let her borrow the head-reader and his fledgling outfit got national publicity.

His collection has grown to 245 devices and he has more than 100 visitors on a nice day. McCoy doesn't charge, but he accepts donations and requests a few bucks for a phrenology reading.

"We're a nonprofit organization, although we didn't intend it to be that way," he says. "We're not tax-exempt."

The museum's Web site has directed traffic his way.

"In the last 20 days, we've had 98,000 visitors" to the Web site, he says. "People can print out and see what they're going to be seeing and we have a little map there for directions."

McCoy is learning more about the online world and how he can benefit from it. He has thousands of old pamphlets that will probably find their way to eBay, the auction site.

The American Medical Association "collected a half-million pieces of literature from 1880 to 1985, and when they moved to Chicago, I saw that they were throwing all the duplicates away," McCoy says. "I said, 'Can I have those?' They said 'yes' and gave me 80,000 copies of stuff."

He figures that he'll finally be able to dump "Sexuality Today" magazines that he's held onto for three decades if his Webmaster's suggestion to try selling them on eBay works.

Long retired as a steel company salesman, McCoy says he's asked by friends why he continues to maintain the museum.

"I tell them because it's fun," he says. "What else would I do?"

The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, 201 Main St. S.E., Minneapolis, Minn. 612-379-4046;

Pub Date: 06/14/99

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