Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

What’s old is new again: quackery in the age of the Internet

Lawrence Jones
Hershey, Pennsylvania, United States


Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)

The term “quack” is generally used to describe promoters of treatments and devices that have no acknowledged beneficial medical use. The advent of improved medical care and technology during the latter half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century was also considered as the peak of the quackery era, during which some of the most notorious purveyors of these devices and treatments made their name. This was also the time when print media and advertising flourished as transportation and marketing infrastructure expanded. The widespread use of unproven nostrums and questionable devices eventually prompted the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration during the early 1900s to eliminate many dangerous and useless products and devices. Yet some of the most notorious ones live on through the Internet. This article reviews one of the most famous purported quacks in the U.S. during the 19th and early 20th century, some of these products, and where they can still be found.


Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)

As a young man, Edgar Cayce developed severe laryngitis after taking a sedative for a headache. His vocal symptoms persisted for months despite treatment by local doctors and specialists. Then, a travelling showman and hypnotist offered to hypnotize Cayce to see if this would improve his condition. While under hypnosis Cayce could speak normally, but on awakening his voice returned to its debilitated state. A specialist who heard about this, and being aware that people under hypnosis sometimes demonstrated unusual insight, suggested that Cayce, while asleep, provide his own diagnosis and treatment. Cayce described his illness as “a psychological condition producing a physical effect” (Todeschi, 2008) and he followed his own sleep-inspired suggestion that if he increased the blood flow to the affected area he would be cured. After awakening he spoke in a normal voice for the first time in nearly a year.

A local homeopath, Dr. Wesley Ketchum, convinced Cayce to help him diagnose some of his own more difficult cases. Ketchum eventually reported about Cayce to the American Society of Clinical Research. Soon after that a New York Times article about Cayce headlined “Illiterate Man Becomes a Doctor When Hypnotized” (New York Times Magazine, 1910). He came to be known as “the Sleeping Psychic” due to his ability to diagnose and treat patients from anywhere while asleep or in a trance. As Cayce’s notoriety grew, he settled in 1928 in Virginia Beach, VA, where he built the Edgar Cayce Hospital. He employed a full staff of doctors, nurses, and therapists, each patient was provided a reading by Cayce, and the precise treatments were established based on his recommendations. The hospital closed following diminished use during the Great Depression.

Over the years Cayce produced thousands of readings. Most of these were recorded and catalogued at the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE), an organization founded by Cayce and still operating in Virginia Beach. In his readings Cayce described in detail the precise treatment for each ailment, often osteopathic or spinal manipulation, usually accompanied by specific herbal or dietary therapy. His favorite treatments were the violet ray machine and two other devices he invented: the wet cell battery and the Radial Appliance. Versions of each still exist and are available today over the Internet.


Radial appliance

The Radial Appliance—also known as the Radio-Active Appliance or Radiac—was developed by Cayce to manage stress, aid meditation, and improve the health of its user. The device was submerged in a nonmetallic container of ice water, thereby causing the steel core to be “electronized,” and electrodes were attached to key anatomical centers of the body’s surface. This device did not produce any electricity on its own, but according to Cayce acted as a “magnet” to draw energy from one part of the body and redistribute it, thereby maintaining an “equilibrium” of the natural forces in the body. Cayce recommended that the patient while using the device maintain a “prayerful, meditative and constructive attitude” in order to redistribute positive energy (McMillin & Richards, 1995). Because the device built up the “personalized vibratory energy” of its user within the core, it was highly recommended not to share the device with any one else. Such advice certainly boosted the sales of this device.


Wet cell battery

Unlike the Radial Appliance, the wet cell battery produced a low voltage electrical current and was touted as a curative rather than preventive, by allowing the vibratory administration of medicinal substances. The battery was recommended for Down’s syndrome, stroke, spinal cord injuries, alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, color blindness, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, cancer, polio, and Alzheimer’s disease. The wet cell battery consisted of two electrodes, one copper and the other nickel, submerged in an electrolyte solution. The wire from the nickel rod was connected to a “solution jar” containing a mixture of other compounds depending on the affliction being treated. The nickel electrode was attached to the abdomen and the copper electrode to specific areas of the spine. According to the Cayce Foundation, the proper attachment and solution mixture can be found through various resources, including readings in the ARE library, consulting a “psychic diagnostician,” or seeking the services of a practitioner of “applied kinesiology,” a specialty based on the premise that the body knows what it needs and communicates this knowledge through involuntary muscle control. Applied kinesiology practitioners ask the patient direct questions about what solution to use or where to place the electrodes, and interpret the involuntary muscular response in order to formulate the appropriate mixture. Finally, the “systems approach” could be used by studying all of Cayce’s readings in order to “understand the reasoning or logic behind Cayce’s system of electro-medicine.” As with the Radial Appliance, the patient was encouraged to keep a constructive, positive attitude during the session through meditation, visualizations, or inspirational reading (McMillin & Richards, 1995).


The influence of the internet

In many ways, the free and relatively unregulated Internet resembles the golden era of patent medicine. The Internet can be accessed virtually everywhere, just as the cheap pulp newspapers and pamphlets of the 1800s, and websites depend heavily on advertising, including direct to consumer advertising for medical products and devices. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 74% of all U.S. adults use the Internet and 49% have accessed a website that provides information about a specific medical condition (Cohen & Adams, 2011). This same survey found that those with higher education and higher incomes were more likely to use the Internet for medical information, being the perfect target audience for advertisers. Thus it is no surprise that purveyors of quack devices have found a new place to peddle their products.

The content of these websites is largely unregulated, allowing marketers of questionable products and services to make misleading and even blatantly false claims. Electronic infrastructure improvements allow products to be purchased with the tap of a key or swipe of a card and delivered quickly, often overnight.

And, much as in earlier times, the populace is becoming more distrustful of “mainstream” medicine and increasingly turning to complementary and alternative products. According to the National Health Statistics Report, 38.3% of all U.S. adults used some form of complementary or alternative medicine or treatment as of 2007, and this number is expected to climb (Barnes, Bloom, & Nahin. 2008).



Medication and device quackery are as old as medical treatment itself and will likely never be eliminated. Many older treatments once banned by the FDA remain available today thanks to the broad reach of the Internet. As in the past, most play on fears about the harms of conventional treatment and the conspiracies of powerful regulatory agencies and organized medicine. Continued vigilance of these sites and their claims, as well as communication with and education of patients regarding the therapeutic benefits and potential harms of these devices and treatments, remains the most effective means of preventing another golden age of quackery.



  1. Barnes PM, Bloom B, Nahin R. (December 2008). CDC National Health Statistics Report #12. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults and Children: United States, 2007.
  2. Cohen RA, Adams PF. (July 2011). Use of the Internet for Health Information: United States, 2009. NCHS Data Brief. No. 66.
  3. McMillin D, Richards D. (1995). The Radial Appliance and Wet Cell Battery, Two Electrotherapeutic Devices Recommended by Edgar Cayce. 2nd edition. Lifeline Press Virginia Beach, VA.
  4. New York Times Magazine. (October 9, 1910). Page SM11.
  5. Todeschi, K J. (2008). Edgar Cayce’s ESP: Who He Was, What He Said, and How it Came True. Retrieved from http://edgarcayce.org/edgar-cayce2.html.



LAWRENCE H. JONES, MD, FACP, graduated from Princeton University in 1981 with a degree in American History. He received his MD degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel College of Medicine) and served his internship and residency in Internal Medicine at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, CO. After serving four years in the Army at Fort Campbell, KY, including a deployment to Mogadishu, Somalia, Dr. Jones joined the staff of the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine in 1996. He is currently a General Internist and maintains an extensive collection of antique medical devices and instruments.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2014 – Volume 6, Issue 1
Winter 2014  |  Sections  |  Doctors, Patients, & Diseases

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