Lane Library

Albert Abrams (c.1863-1924)

Dr. Ophüls replaced Dr. Abrams as Professor of Pathology on the Faculty of Cooper Medical College. There could hardly have been greater dissimilarity between the two.

Dr. Abrams submitted his resignation as Professor of Pathology to the Faculty at its regular meeting on 16 May 1898 and it was accepted by the Board of Directors of the College on 15 November 1898 without the usual expression of appreciation for prior services. The records of the College contain no information as to the reasons for the resignation. However, considering the nature of Dr. Abrams' practice, which we will now describe, it can be assumed that he was requested to resign. [70] [71]

In a few words, Dr. Abrams was the most ingenious and notorious quack to be found in the practice of American medicine during the first quarter of the twentieth century. He was also a graduate of Cooper Medical College and a long-term member of the Faculty.

The following data regarding Abrams' relation to the College were obtained from the Register and Annual Announcements of the school. With respect to his attendance as a student we find that his signature appears in the Register of the College only for the year 1881, at which time he gave his age as nineteen. It is impossible to determine whether he matriculated for more than that one year. In any case he was awarded an M. D. by the College in 1883. He served on the teaching staff of the College for a total of fourteen years - five years (1885-1889) as Demonstrator of Pathology; four years (1890-1893) as Adjunct to the Chair of Clinical Medicine and Demonstrator of Pathology; and five years (1894-1898) as Professor of Pathology.

Who's Who in America for 1922-1923 contains a lengthy entry on Albert Abrams, physician: "Born in San Francisco 8 December 1863; M. D. University of Heidelberg, 1882; A. M. Portland University, 1892; and LL. D. (date and institution not specified). The M. D. degree in 1883 from Cooper Medical College is not mentioned. When the American Medical Association sought to validate Abrams' credentials, it was found that he had previously given his date of birth variously as 1862, 1863 and 1864; that there was no evidence of his having received an M. D. degree from Heidelberg; and that there was no record of the existence of a "University of Portland" at the time. It would appear that the LL.D. degree was also ephemeral. [72] [73] [74]

Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur was a medical student from 1897 to 1899 at Cooper Medical College, and during that period grew suspicious of Professor Abrams' qualifications and ethics: [75]

It was during my student days at Cooper that I made my first personal acquaintance with a quack, Dr. Albert Abrams, then (unfortunately) Professor of Pathology until his connection with the college was severed. Abrams became one of the sensational medical characters of the early 1900's. Like Wilshire with his "Magic Horse Collar," Abrams had an electrical machine with which he claimed to diagnose . . . almost every ailment. It was known as the "Magic Box" (which was supposed to measure the "Electronic Reactions of Abrams"). He was so plausible and those interested in him often so guileless and gullible that he made quite a stir. He was a complete and total fraud.

As a medical student I was somewhat further along in physiology and chemistry than most of my fellow students. I can still see Abrams in a clinic demonstrating on a Chinaman who had an enlarged abdomen. He said, "This is a case of syphilis of the liver. How do I know it is syphilis of the liver? First because he is a Chinaman and, second, because his liver is enlarged." I watched him after that, and saw him fake part of a test in making a urinary analysis before a class. I made some comment about it, and Dr. Lane sent for me to know what I thought about Abrams. I told him exactly what I thought. Not long after that, Abrams' appointment in the medical school was withdrawn. Nevertheless he continued to use the name of the Cooper Medical College and later that of Stanford University in his publicity, particularly in newspaper publicity.

(In 1922 Abrams was riding high as the guru of electronic medicine and claiming in his publicity that he was affiliated with Stanford University. Dr. Wilbur, then President of Stanford, protested vigorously to the Associated Press: [76]

May I call your attention to the enclosed clippings, apparently sent out from your office, indicating that Dr. Albert Abrams is connected with Leland Stanford University. The same error has been corrected several times. Dr. Abrams has never had any association with Stanford University. He is a graduate of Cooper Medical College, which was taken over by Stanford University long after his graduation. It is evident that Dr. Abrams, or some one associated with his publicity work, has tried to keep up the fiction of his association with Stanford.

It seems to me bad enough for such a responsible institution as the Associated Press to herald far and wide the scientific rubbish of Dr. Abrams, and worse still to connect the name of the University in any way with such absurdities.)

The public, some members of the medical profession, and numerous eclectics, homeopaths; osteopaths, chiropractors, etc. were far less insightful than medical student Wilbur and the Cooper College Faculty in recognizing Abrams as an impostor. In fact, after his separation from the College in 1898, Abrams went on to develop a wide following of admirers and grateful patients. Among his patients was the well known author, Upton Sinclair, popular writer on social themes, who was a particularly vociferous supporter. Abrams also attracted a large cadre of spurious practitioners who employed and vigorously touted his faked methods. The outrageous "electronic hoax " perpetrated by Abrams reached such an extent that both the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Scientific American each sought in a series of articles to expose and discredit his ridiculous paraphernalia and preposterous claims.

The following is a paraphrased and condensed version of the numerous articles on Abrams and his methods published in the JAMA during 1922: [77]

Dr. Albert Abrams of San Francisco is the latest rocket to blaze a somewhat polychromatic course across the firmament of pseudo-medicine. In the field of diagnosis. Dr. Abrams claims to have evolved a system of abdominal percussion, practiced in connection with certain apparatus that he has made, from which he derives what he is pleased to term the "Electronic Reactions of Abrams": (abbreviated ERA).

By means of this system Abrams claims that he "can diagnose the sex, race and disease" of a patient that he has never seen, and who does not need to be present. All that Abrams needs is a sample of blood from that patient. A few drops of blood, taken from that individual while he is facing west, but who may be a thousand miles or more away, are put on a piece of paper which is mailed to Abrams. The paper is then placed in what Abrams calls his "Dynamizer." This is connected with his "Rheostatic Dynamizer," from which, in turn, wires go to the "Vibratory Rate Rheostat" that is connected with the "Measuring Rheostat." From the "Measuring Rheostat" comes a wire at the end of which is an electrode which is pressed to the forehead of some other healthy individual who is termed "the subject" whose abdomen is then percussed. The subject must face west and be in a dim light. The mysterious energy from the patient's blood sample or other specimen passes from the subject's forehead to the subject's abdomen where this mysterious electronic emanation sets up certain changes in the hollow organs which may be detected by percussing the subject's abdomen. [78]

The nub of the whole matter is that the alleged diagnosis is made by mapping out various areas of resonance and dullness in the subject's abdomen by percussion. Dr. Abrams claims to be able to tell by this means whether the individual whose blood is being "tested" is suffering from syphilis, sarcoma, carcinoma, typhoid fever, malaria, gonorrhea or tuberculosis and, if so suffering, where the diseased area is located. He can also diagnose pregnancy and the paternity of the fetus by the same method.

More wonderful still, some operatives of the equipment have claimed that, for the drop of blood, one may substitute the autograph of an individual, living or dead, and by this incredible procedure determine whether or not the individual is or was a sufferer from syphilis, etc. When the autograph of Samuel Pepys was tested, this famous diarist was alleged to have suffered from congenital syphilis; the autographs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe gave the same result and, in the case of the latter, there was also the "reaction of dipsomania." The autograph (written in 1775) of that stern old moralist Dr. Samuel Johnson gave the "reaction" for acquired syphilis and tuberculosis. Nor is this all, Dr. Abrams announced that by his method he could determine the religion of the patient.

In the field of treatment Abrams claims equal marvels. He has discovered that every disease has its rate of vibration, and that all drugs that are specific in the treatment of disease have a definite vibration rate. He has, therefore, devised another instrument which he calls the "Oscilloclast." This is capable, so it is claimed, of producing vibrations of various rapidity's. Instead of using a drug, one starts the "Oscilloclast" going, moves the indicator to the number corresponding to the vibration rate of the indicated drug and applies the instrument to the sufferer who then gets, it is alleged, the therapeutic action of the drug in question.

The Oscilloclast is not for sale but can be leased to those willing to pay the price for it and sign a contract that they will not open it.

In 1917 Drs. Hyman and Reed, two reputable San Francisco physicians, proposed to Dr. Abrams that they furnish him with blood from 200 patients at the University of California and Stanford University Clinics on which to test the diagnostic accuracy of his "Electronic Reactions of Abrams." He refused to cooperate in any way with such an investigation. [79] [80]

Abrams assiduously avoided controlled evaluation of his claims. One of his henchmen, a Dr. Caesar, was not so cautious, thinking that he could successfully outwit any protocol designed to evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of the Abrams test. In March 1918 Caesar offered to conduct diagnostic tests on blood samples from 192 patients at the State Hospital in Stockton, California, each of whom had either tuberculosis or syphilis. When Caesar refused to allow the Hospital-Physician in charge of the patients to observe the performance of the Abrams test, she secretly assigned an incorrect diagnosis to sixty-four of the 192 samples submitted for testing. When he tested the samples, Caesar reported the incorrect diagnosis on each of the sixty-four patients, indicating that he had surreptitiously obtained the information on which he based the diagnosis in each case. [81]


Two Ohms of Tuberculosis

In October 1922, Abrams came to Boston and "was given an opportunity to lay his cards on the table, face up." On Sunday afternoon, October 8th, he delivered a lecture at the Copley-Plaza at which between 800 and 1000 persons were present. On October 9th he appeared before the Board of Registration in Medicine on the understanding that he would demonstrate his method, and all preparations had been made for him to do so. When the meeting came to order, however, Abrams said that it was impossible for him to give a demonstration at that time and the meeting was adjourned. However, he agreed to give a clinical demonstration in the "laboratory" of one of his Boston disciples on the following day, but insisted on confining himself to demonstrating the presence of lesions "the existence of most of which could be proved only by post-mortem examination."

A member of the staff of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, who was present, volunteered to provide a blood sample for the experiment with the following result as reported in the Journal: [82]

The volunteer accepted by Dr. Abrams for his experiment was in apparently perfect health. Yet this individual, according to Abrams, presented the following pathological conditions: streptococcus infection of the left frontal sinus and of the right antrum; two ohms of tuberculosis, location, intestinal tract; congenital syphilis; sarcoma, non-metastatic, of the intestine. In demonstrating the situation of the sarcoma, Abrams located it first in the right lower quadrant and later, by another method, in the left lower quadrant.

Abrams says that his Electronic Reactions are either the greatest miracle of the age or the greatest fake. No one who witnessed the above demonstration and who listened at all critically to his vague explanation of the theory of these reactions could concede the former. Whether the thing is a conscious hoax or is a case of self-deception we cannot say. Whichever it is, it is a dangerous doctrine; the time has come for the Board of Registration in Medicine to put a stop to the further perpetration of this fraud.

By 1923 thousands of American doctors and impostors were dabbling in "electronic medicine" which had many manifestations, chief among them the Abrams cult. The mystique of the bogus "electronic technology" made it a simple matter for the unscrupulous practitioners of this thriving fad to dupe and defraud the credulous public. The extravagant aura of "science" and "progress" at the time gave free rein to idiotic ideas.

In 1923, in order to settle once and for all the authenticity of the claims of Abrams and his disciples, the publishers of the Scientific American organized the "Scientific American Abrams Investigation Committee." Managing Editor Austin C. Lescarboura (an electrical engineer) acted as Secretary of the Committee which also included four distinguished representatives of various scientific disciplines: Dr. William H. Park (bacteriologist); Robert C. Post (civil engineer); M. Malcolm Bird (mathematician); and Dr. Walter C. Alvarez (medical investigator, graduate of Cooper Medical College in 1905, and Associate Professor of Research Medicine at University of California).

Dr. Walter Alvarez's father, Luis F. Alvarez, M. D., was also a graduate of Cooper Medical College. Luis Alvarez received his M. D. degree from Cooper Medical College in 1887 and Albert Abrams was Professor of Pathology at the time. Dr. Walter Alvarez remembered what his father said about Abrams: [83]

My father told me that the students soon found out that Albert Abrams, who after his return from Europe was put on the Faculty, was a crook. He was supposed to give them a course in physical diagnosis, and also a course in pathology. Apparently, he did not know one end of a microscope from another and so his supposed training in Germany was very questionable. My father said that Abrams told the students that if they would come to his office at night, for $100 he would give them a good course in physical diagnosis. . .

Once around 1920 I went to see Abrams with Paul de Kruif, and we could easily see that he was a self-deluded crook. He had one great gift. He learned the trick of getting free advertising from the newspapers by making such weird, stupid statements that they were copied all over the world. For instance, one day Abrams told the reporters that by taking a drop of blood he could tell whether a man was a Methodist, a Baptist, a Congregationalist, or a Jew.

The Committee's investigation in 1923 and 1924, reported in twelve articles in Scientific American, was wide-ranging, objective and thorough. Article number six in the series, published in March 1924, two and a half months after Abrams' death, portrayed the late Dr. Abrams as a cornered man, determined to preserve his grand illusion to the bitter end: [84]

Dr. Albert Abrams is dead. He passed away suddenly on Sunday, January 13, from an attack of pneumonia, on the very eve of his scheduled appearance as the star witness in the trial at Jonesboro, Ark., of Dr. Mary Lecoque, an E. R. A. practitioner charged with using the mails to defraud. The Government alleged that the Abrams practitioner in this case diagnosed the blood of a chicken as that of a human, and offered a cure after the specimen had been sent to her through the mail. This trial was one of several disagreeable events confronting Dr. Abrams, and no doubt weighed heavily on his already over-taxed mind and health.

It is fitting at this time that our investigation be directed towards a study of Dr. Albert Abrams who, after all is said and done, was the mainspring of the entire E. R. A. technique. To this day the basic facts of E. R. A. remain unproved, so far as the scientific world is concerned; and those who have accepted the E. R. A. technique have done so largely on their faith in Dr. Abrams. Indeed, in our constant and unrelenting efforts to obtain some evidence of the basic phenomenon on which this entire structure of queer ideas and still queerer practice rests, we have always been referred to Dr. Abrams. Individual E. R. A. practitioners, despite their every-day use of this method in making diagnoses and giving treatments to their patients, have declined to submit themselves to our tests and have preferred to have us deal directly with Dr. Abrams. Then, when we have tried in every possible way to make some kind of test with Dr. Abrams which would immediately prove or fail to prove his basic claims, we have found Dr. Abrams quite unprepared and obviously unwilling to aid us in our sincere quest except under his own, unscientific conditions.

The final article by the Scientific American Abrams Investigation Committee is an unsparing rebuke of the Abrams' pretensions: [85]

This Committee finds that the claims advanced on behalf of the Electronic Reactions of Abrams, and of electronic practice in general, are not substantiated; and it is our belief that they have no basis in fact. In our opinion the so-called electronic reactions do not occur, and the so-called electronic treatments are without value.

The so-called Electronic Reactions of Abrams do not exist - at least not objectively. They are merely products of the Abrams practitioner's mind. These so-called reactions are without diagnostic value. And the Abrams' oscilloclast, intended to restore the proper electronic conditions in the diseased or ailing body, is barren of real therapeutic value. The entire Abrams' electronic technique is not worthy of serious attention in any of its numerous variations. At best, it is all an illusion. At worst it is a colossal fraud.

The scientific community in general vigorously repudiated and censored Abrams and his multitude of staunch adherents. Nevertheless there was still a certain ambivalence in the public mind as suggested by the tone of the front-page obituary published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday 14 January 1924, the day after Abrams' death. In the end, Abrams once again captured the headlines. They read:

Albert Abrams, World Famous S. F. Physician, Dies

Doctor's Death Attributed to Nerve Strains

Was Discoverer of Electronic System for Treating Disease

Theory Was Attacked Year Ago Forecast his Passing Almost to the Month, Associate Says

Dr. Albert Abrams, discoverer and exponent of the electronic method of detecting and treating diseases died in his residence and clinic at 2151 Sacramento street, at 8:30 o'clock last night, following a seven day illness of bronchial pneumonia.

(Note: Death Certificate of Albert Abrams obtained 31 July 1995 from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Bureau of Records and Statistics, lists date of birth as 8 December 1864; date of death as 13 January 1924; and cause of death as "Broncho-pneumonia." There was no autopsy.)

Dr. Abrams was 61 years old. His death, which he had predicted almost to the week of the occurrence before an assemblage of his disciples in San Francisco a year ago, was directly due to the mental and physical strain which vigorous attacks of the medical profession had made upon him and his theories, according to the statements last night of his close associates.. . .

"Dr. Abrams tried not to show how deeply he was wounded by the constant and bitter attacks made against him by the orthodox medical men, but the attacks undermined his strength." Dr. Wirth continued, "He has gone, but his theories of treatment will continue; we shall carry on his work unflaggingly."

"Dr. Abrams was to have left Tuesday for Jonesboro, Ark., where a physician using his method of treatment of disease will go on trial in the courts this week. He then was to have proceeded to Ohio, where the Ohio Medical Association is carrying on a campaign against his doctrines," Dr. Wirth said, "and after defending his theories and practices in other Eastern states he was scheduled to sail for London for an appearance before medical associations of England. "

Work will continue uninterrupted on the ten-story building at Sutter and Hyde streets which is to be the Abrams College of Electronic Medicine. . . .

At the time of his death the discoverer and exponent of the new science of healing had more than 3000 "disciples" in the Unites States, Europe and Asia, according to statements last night of his associates. Twelve schools for the teaching and practice of his electronic reaction theories were in operation in the United States alone, and 1000 patients had been treated at his Sacramento street clinic itself.

Dr. Abrams' prediction of the probably date of his death was recalled by Dr. Wirth last night. "In addressing a meeting of his disciples in the new method of healing," Dr. Wirth said, "Dr. Abrams told us that he had made an examination of his own blood, and that his tests of his blood's energy output showed that he had less than two years to accomplish the many things he had in mind. He forecast his passing down almost to the month." . . .

Last August local friends of Lenin, the soviet dictator, asked Dr. Abrams to permit the use of his "oscilloclast" to determine the mysterious maladies then afflicting the Russian.

Medical impostors have always victimized the public, and other than science-based systems of medicine will always persist because of their peculiar emotional appeal, and in spite of their nonsensical basis. Medical charlatans like Abrams, claiming a scientific rationale for their methods, are now promptly discredited, but early in the century American physicians and the lay public were still learning to trust and apply the stricter standards of modern medicine. Paradoxically, Abrams' phenomenal success over a period of twenty years was based on his ability to convince his followers and hordes of patients that his pseudoscience was at the forefront of the medical renaissance then clearly in progress.

Unfortunately, the name of this cool prince of fakery has been associated in the annals of western medicine with Cooper Medical College, and questions regarding his methods, career and relation to the College continue to arise. That being the case, it seemed appropriate to provide the above detailed account in the hope of settling these questions.

Lane Library