Electrically charged children and other medical foibles

Reading about the Cleveland Clinic’s predictions of medical innovations for 2019 got me thinking about the medical ideas and practices from the past 100 years that did not turn out well. 

One idea that did not go far came from Professor Svante Arhenius in 1912.[1] The noted Nobel Prize–winning physicist and chemist (and father of the current concept of climate change) conducted a series of experiments in which he exposed children and their teachers to the “magnetic influence” of high-frequency electrical current wired into the walls of a classroom. The children served as the iron rods used to create electromagnetism within a coil of electrically charged wire. It was anticipated that the children’s growth and their ability to learn would be greatly improved. Professor Arhenius’s report concluded that the use of high-frequency current would be an “indicated measure” in treating diabetes, gout, rheumatism, and other “disorders of metabolism.”

In 1949 Antonio Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for developing the lobotomy technique to stop behaviors seen in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses.[2] In 1954, during my fourth year of medicine at UBC, I was on my 2-week psychiatry rotation at Riverview (Essondale) Hospital. I was assigned to take a history from a female patient who had a lobotomy some 10 years before. Her story was incoherent and full of uninhibited four-letter words. She had lived in the mental hospital since her procedure. Critics of the lobotomy argued that the procedure caused more harm than good. After the introduction of chlorpromazine, lobotomies were abandoned, and unsuccessful attempts were made to remove Moniz from the list of Nobel Prize winners.  

In the 1970s research on shark cartilage suggested that sharks do not get cancer because of a substance in their cartilage that inhibits tumor growth. Taking pills, liquids, or applying topical creams containing shark cartilage supplements became popular as a result. After a series of clinical trials involving cancer patients,[3] the National Cancer Institute concluded that shark cartilage has no effect on cancer. 

In the first half of the 1900s, and particularly after the Second World War, tobacco ads often featured doctors endorsing the beneficial qualities of cigarette smoking. Tobacco companies claimed that smoking offered protection against throat irritation and coughing. Offering cigarettes was part of the culture. No one in my family smoked, yet in the early 1950s we had cigarettes in the house for guests. Cigarettes were even served on flights with meals. It was only after 1950, when Dr Ernest Winder and Dr Evarts Graham published their study of 684 proven cases that cigarettes caused cancer[4] that doctors stopped smoking, or at least some did.

Dr Graham, a thoracic surgeon and a heavy smoker, was initially unconvinced of the need for a study of smoking and lung cancer. However, he allowed young Dr Winder to interview patients with lung cancer. The results of the early studies were regarded as provocative, and the medical and scientific communities were resistant to the idea that smoking caused cancer. Dr Graham designed a cigarette smoking machine and demonstrated that prolonged application of tar induced carcinoma in various strains of mice. A number of large cohort studies in the US and UK confirmed the relationship between lung cancer and tobacco smoking. Dr Graham stopped smoking in 1951, but died of lung cancer in 1957. 

Today we have Dr Dale Bredesen’s provocative best-selling book, The end of Alzheimer’s: The first program to prevent and reverse cognitive decline.[5] We will have to wait to find out if that is just another foible. 
—George Szasz, CM, MD

1.    Kilmore Free Press. Report on the work of Svante Arrhenius: Growth of children perfected by electricity. 12 June 1912. 
2.    Gallea MA. A brief reflection on the not-so-brief history of the lobotomy. BCMJ 2017;59:302-304.
3.    Miller DR, Anderson GT, Stark JJ, et al. Phase I/II trial of the safety and efficacy of shark cartilage in the treatment of advanced cancer. J Clin Oncol 1998;16:3649-3655.
4.    Wynder EL, Graham EA. Tobacco smoking as a possible etiologic factor in bronchiogenic carcinoma. JAMA 1950;143:329-336.
5.    Bredesen D. The end of Alzheimer’s: The first program to prevent and reverse cognitive decline. Thorndike Press: 11 April 2018. 

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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