While technically this museum closed in 2002, thanks to the intrepid efforts of the Science Museum of Minnesota and curator and collector Bob McCoy, the collection lives on as the “Questionable Medical Device” collection in the Science Museum of Minnesota.
This collection of dubious medical devices reminds us that sometimes, medicine is best left to the doctors. Exhibits on display include a phrenological machine that gauges personality by measuring the size of bumps on the head, a foot-powered breast enlarger, and glasses and soap products designed for weight-loss.
You can still have your phrenology read by the fully functional machine today, and as the machine outlines the bumps on your skull, the phrenology reader “maps” intelligence, morality, and much more. Machines such as these were all the rage at State Fairs of the early 1900s, as were other questionable medical devices. The infomercials of their time, these snake oils and pseudoscience gadgets could cure impotence, tell how smart you were, and make you live forever.
Unfortunately these contraptions were also often dangerous to the public that was tricked into using them. A depilatory machine removed unwanted hair with x-rays, and ultimately caused cancer in the thousands of women who paid for the treatment. Another apparatus, used in shoe stores, allowed you to see your feet in your new shoes with an x-ray machine. How else could you tell if the shoes fit? The machine was declared unsafe by the FDA in 1970.
The museum’s roots lie in a modern day “phrenology parlor” started by Bob McCoy in the early 80s. Bob and his friend acquired a dozen or so phrenology machines and opened up shop in a waterfront mall in downtown Minneapolis. Demonstrating the machinery for a few bucks a pop, word soon spread about McCoy and his vintage devices. McCoy continued to acquire additional pieces from garage sales and other collectors, and the exhibit now also holds exhibits on loan from The American Medical Association, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The St. Louis Science Center, The Bakken Library, and The National Council Against Health Fraud. When McCoy retired, he donated his collection of more than 325 exhibits to the Science Museum of Minnesota.
The museum is currently the world’s largest display of “what the human mind has devised to cure itself without the benefit of either scientific method or common sense.”