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Strange Health Products and Medical Devices from the 1950s

We have many wonderful health products on the market today: red light therapies, facial cleansers, and therapeutic massage guns. It can be easier to vet and… Alexander Gabriel - May 30, 2023

We have many wonderful health products on the market today: red light therapies, facial cleansers, and therapeutic massage guns. It can be easier to vet and research medical devices thanks to the internet, but this wasn’t always the case. In the mid 20th century, medical cures and technologies had reached a high. Unfortunately, many of the products advertised and recommended by doctors weren’t based in any real science, and were occasionally more harmful to a person’s health than using nothing at all. The 1950s were seventy years ago, but we’ve made huge leaps in medical information in that period of time. Let’s take a look at a few of the most absurd health products from the 1950s.

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The Relaxacizor

This machine was marketed as a solution for people who were too busy or too lazy to exercise, yet still wanted to reap the rewards of a toned body. The Relaxacizor consisted of a belt that was worn around the waist. It would then vibrate at a high frequency to simulate the effects of physical activity. The idea behind this product was that the vibration would shake off excess fat and tone muscles, leading to weight loss and a better physique. However, the efficacy of the Relaxacizor was highly questionable, and it was eventually revealed that the machine did not actually deliver the results it promised.

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In the 1950s, electroretinography (ERG) was a relatively new technique used in ophthalmology to measure the electrical activity of the retina. An ERG machine would typically consist of a series of electrodes placed on the surface of the eye, which would detect changes in electrical activity as light was flashed onto the retina. This information could then be used to assess the function of the retina, and to diagnose conditions such as retinal detachment, macular degeneration, and congenital eye disorders. The use of ERG in the 1950s represented a significant advancement in ophthalmic diagnosis and treatment, as it allowed doctors to better understand the underlying causes of vision problems and to tailor treatments accordingly.



Thalidomide was a medication that was introduced in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a treatment for morning sickness and sleeplessness in pregnant women. It was later discovered that the drug had severe side effects, including causing birth defects in babies born to mothers who had taken the medication. The use of thalidomide resulted in one of the greatest medical tragedies of the 20th century, with thousands of babies being born with missing or malformed limbs, as well as other physical and developmental disabilities. The incident led to a complete overhaul of drug testing and approval processes and highlighted the importance of rigorous testing before drugs are made available to the public.

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Deep Therapy X-Ray Machine

This device used high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells, while minimizing damage to healthy tissue. Unlike earlier radiation therapy methods, which could only penetrate a few centimeters into the body, the Deep Therapy X-Ray Machine could deliver radiation deep into the tissues, allowing doctors to target tumors in hard-to-reach areas. This made it an effective treatment option for a wide range of cancers, including those of the lung, breast, and prostate. The Deep Therapy X-Ray Machine was also more comfortable for patients, as it was designed to be less invasive and more precise than previous methods.

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Radium Suppositories

These suppositories contained a small amount of radioactive material, which was thought to stimulate bowel movements by releasing energy. Despite the potential danger of exposure to radiation, radium suppositories were marketed as a safe and effective treatment for constipation. However, the use of radium suppositories was eventually banned by the FDA in the 1960s due to the health risks associated with exposure to radiation. The idea that radiation could be used as a medical treatment was a popular one in the early 20th century. It was later discovered that exposure to radiation could actually cause serious health problems, including cancer. Today, radium suppositories are viewed as a bizarre and dangerous relic of a bygone era of medical quackery.

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Electroshock Machines

These machines worked by administering mild electric shocks to the patient, which were thought to stimulate the nerves and improve circulation. The idea behind electric shock therapy was that it would “recharge” the body and provide a natural boost of energy. The use of electric shock machines was controversial, and many medical professionals warned of the potential dangers of electric shock therapy. This included nerve damage, burns, and even death. Despite these risks, electric shock machines continued to be used throughout the 1950s, and were even advertised in magazines and on television as a miracle cure-all. Electroshock therapy is still available today, but the technology and safety precautions have greatly increased and it is an effective treatment for treatment resistant depression.

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Cigarette Holder Inhalers

This device allowed users to inhale cigarette smoke through a filter, which was supposed to remove the harmful chemicals and toxins from the smoke. The cigarette holder inhaler was marketed as a way for smokers to enjoy their habit without worrying about the negative health consequences, and was touted as a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes. The idea that smoking could be made safe with a simple filter was debunked, and it is now well known that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, heart disease, and other serious health problems. Today, the cigarette holder inhaler is viewed as a misguided and dangerous product that was promoted by tobacco companies in an attempt to continue selling their harmful products.

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The Optokinetic Drum

The optokinetic drum is a device that consists of a rotating drum with vertical stripes, which is used to test the visual reflexes of the eye. Dr. Byford was particularly interested in studying the effects of the optokinetic drum on patients with vestibular disorders, which are conditions that affect the balance and orientation of the body. He found that by exposing patients to the rotating stripes of the optokinetic drum, he could induce a sensation of motion and cause the brain to make compensatory adjustments to maintain balance. Dr. Byford’s research was groundbreaking, and helped to establish the use of the optokinetic drum as a tool for diagnosing and treating vestibular disorders.

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The Vibrating Belt for Weight Loss

This exercise belt was designed to be worn around the waist. It used vibrating mechanisms to stimulate the muscles in the abdomen and hips. The idea was that the vibration would break down fat and stimulate muscle growth, leading to weight loss and a more toned physique. The effectiveness of the vibrating belt was highly questionable, and many medical professionals warned that it was a gimmick that would not deliver real results. Despite these concerns, the vibrating belt remained popular throughout the 1950s, and was even featured in advertisements and on television as a revolutionary new weight loss product. Even the 1950s weren’t immune from fad weight loss trends.

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Amphetamine Diet Pills

These pills contained amphetamines, which are powerful stimulants that suppress appetite and increase metabolism. The popularity of diet pills was fueled by the cultural obsession with slimness and beauty. Many people turned to these pills as a way to achieve their ideal body weight. By taking these pills, users would eat less and burn more calories, leading to rapid weight loss. Amphetamine diet pills quickly became popular. They seemed to offer a quick and easy solution to the problem of weight loss. However, the use of amphetamines as diet pills can be highly addictive and can cause a range of serious side effects. These include heart problems, anxiety, and insomnia. Amphetamine diet pills remained popular throughout the 1950s, and were even prescribed by doctors as a weight loss solution.

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A Leg Vibrator to Help with Circulation

This machine consisted of a platform with a motorized vibration mechanism that produced a rhythmic shaking motion when turned on. Patients would sit on the platform with their legs resting on the vibrating surface, allowing the machine to stimulate blood flow and reduce swelling in the legs. The leg vibrator was often used as a treatment for conditions such as varicose veins, edema, and poor circulation. While the leg vibrator was effective in promoting circulation and providing relief from these conditions, its use declined over time as other treatments and technologies became available.

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Hair Growing Helmet

The hair growing helmet was a health product of the 1950s that claimed to prevent baldness and promote hair growth. The device was a helmet worn on the head with tiny needles to stimulate the scalp. It was marketed as a revolutionary solution for those worried about hair loss, without the need for medication or surgery. The helmet was even advertised on TV as a cutting-edge hair restoration product. Full, lush hair was just as coveted in the 50s as it is today.

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The Roentgen Steed

Named after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, the Roentgen steed was designed to look like a wooden horse, with a padded seat and stirrups for the child’s feet. The child would sit on the horse and place their chin on a rest, while holding onto handles on either side. This position helped to keep the child still and in the correct position for the X-ray, reducing the need for retakes and minimizing the amount of radiation exposure. The Roentgen steed was widely used in pediatric hospitals and clinics during the 1950s and 1960s, and was a popular alternative to sedation or restraint for children who were too young or anxious to sit still for X-rays. While the Roentgen steed has since been replaced by other devices and techniques, its legacy continues to be felt in the ongoing efforts to improve the experience of medical imaging for children.


Dr. Scholl’s Electric Foot Massager

Dr. Scholl’s Electric Foot Massager was a popular health product in the 1950s. It claimed to provide a soothing and invigorating massage for the feet. This device consisted of a small, handheld machine that was equipped with vibrating pads and rollers. These rollers were designed to stimulate the nerve endings in the feet and provide a relaxing massage sensation. The Dr. Scholl’s Electric Foot Massager was marketed as a way to reduce foot pain and tension. Unlike some other health products of the time, the Dr. Scholl’s Electric Foot Massager was generally well-regarded by medical professionals, who saw it as a safe and effective way to provide relief for foot-related ailments. Today, the Dr. Scholl’s Electric Foot Massager has evolved into a range of high-tech foot massage products, which are still popular with people looking for a way to soothe tired and achy feet.

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Rotating Cobalt Machine for Radiation Treatment

The rotating cobalt machine was an important innovation in cancer treatment during the 1950s. This device was a large machine that swung around the body of a patient, emitting beams of high-energy radiation that could target and destroy cancerous tumors. The rotating cobalt machine was a significant improvement over earlier radiation therapy methods, which were often imprecise and could cause damage to healthy tissue. By using highly focused radiation beams, the rotating cobalt machine allowed doctors to treat cancerous tumors with greater precision, and with fewer side effects. The device was particularly effective in treating cancers of the head and neck, where tumors were often difficult to access using traditional surgical methods.


Medicines That Claimed to “Cure” Colds, the Flu, and Allergies

In 1958, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged the makers of several popular medicines, including Inhiston, Anahist, Resistabs, and Kripton, with false advertising. The FTC alleged that the manufacturers of these drugs had made false claims about their effectiveness in treating a range of ailments, including colds, flu, and allergies. According to the FTC, the makers of these drugs had exaggerated their benefits and downplayed the potential risks and side effects. The charges brought by the FTC marked a turning point in the regulation of medicine and advertising in the United States, and helped to establish new standards for the marketing and labeling of over-the-counter medications.

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Portable Iron Lungs

Portable iron lungs, also known as negative-pressure ventilators, worked by creating a vacuum around the patient’s body, which helped to regulate breathing and increase the amount of oxygen in their lungs. Portable iron lungs were designed to be lightweight and compact, making them easy to transport, and were often used by patients who needed to travel long distances or who wanted to maintain their mobility while receiving treatment. Despite their convenience, portable iron lungs were not without their limitations, and were often uncomfortable and difficult to use for extended periods of time. Nevertheless, these devices represented an important step forward in the treatment of respiratory conditions, and helped to improve the lives of countless patients during the 1950s and beyond.

National WWII Museum

First Dialysis Machines

Willem Kolff, MD, PhD, was a Dutch physician and researcher who is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of artificial organs. In the 1950s, he initiated the first dialysis program in the United States at the University of Utah, where he had been recruited to help establish a research program focused on artificial organs. Kolff had already made significant contributions to the development of the first artificial kidney, a device that could be used to filter the blood of patients with kidney failure. With the establishment of the dialysis program at the University of Utah, Kolff and his team were able to further refine the technology and improve patient outcomes.

National Museum of American History

Vaccinations Administered with a Jet Injector

Vaccinations using a jet injector were first introduced in the 1950s as an alternative to traditional needle injections. This technology utilized high-pressure jets of liquid to penetrate the skin and deliver vaccines or other medications directly into the bloodstream. While early jet injectors were often noisy, bulky, and difficult to use, advances in technology over the years led to the development of more streamlined and effective devices. Jet injectors have been used to administer a wide range of vaccines, including those for diseases like measles, hepatitis B, and influenza. One of the main benefits of jet injectors is their ability to deliver vaccines more quickly and efficiently than traditional needle injections, which can be especially important in emergency situations or when administering vaccines to large groups of people. However, the use of jet injectors has also been associated with some risks, such as the potential for cross-contamination between patients or the transmission of bloodborne diseases.


Mercury Filled Thermometers

Mercury-filled thermometers were commonly used in the 1950s to measure body temperature in medical settings and at home. These thermometers were made of glass and contained a small amount of liquid mercury, which expanded and contracted with changes in temperature to provide an accurate reading. While mercury thermometers were relatively inexpensive and easy to use, they also posed some risks to human health and the environment. Mercury is a toxic substance that can be harmful if ingested or inhaled, and can also contaminate soil and water if not disposed of properly. In the years since the 1950s, there has been a growing awareness of the dangers of mercury exposure, leading to a shift towards the use of digital thermometers and other alternatives that do not contain mercury.

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Shoe-fitting Fluoroscopes

Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were a popular device used in shoe stores during the mid-20th century to help measure customers’ feet and find the best-fitting shoes. The device used X-rays to produce an image of the customer’s feet on a screen, allowing the salesperson to see the bones and measure the shoe size. However, little was known about the health risks of prolonged exposure to X-rays, and customers and sales staff were routinely exposed to potentially harmful doses of radiation. As a result, the use of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes was gradually phased out in the 1950s and 1960s, and their use was eventually banned by the US government in 1970.


Transorbital Lobotomies

Transorbital lobotomy was a surgical procedure that was developed in the 1940s as a treatment for mental illness, particularly severe cases of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. The procedure involved inserting an instrument into the eye socket and through the thin layer of bone separating the brain from the eye, and then severing the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. The procedure was relatively quick and simple, and was believed to help alleviate the symptoms of mental illness by reducing the patient’s emotional reactivity.

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Radithor was a radioactive tonic that was marketed as a cure for various ailments, including arthritis, impotence, and even cancer. The tonic was produced by mixing radium chloride with distilled water. It was claimed that the radiation emitted by the radium had a therapeutic effect on the body. The use of radium in this way was highly dangerous, and many experts warned of the dangers of radiation exposure. Nevertheless, Radithor became popular among the wealthy and elite, and even sports figures and celebrities endorsed it as a performance enhancer. Sadly, many people who consumed the tonic suffered from severe radiation poisoning, including bone damage, organ failure, and even death. The tragedy of Radithor served as a powerful warning about the dangers of untested and unproven medical treatments,


Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, also known simply as “Compound,” was a popular patent medicine in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was developed by Lydia Pinkham, a businesswoman and herbalist who claimed to have found a cure for “female complaints,” such as menstrual cramps, menopause, and other reproductive issues. The compound was made from a blend of herbs and alcohol, and it was marketed as a natural and safe alternative to more invasive medical treatments. It contained a high percentage of alcohol, which could be harmful to some users. Nevertheless, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound remains a significant chapter in the history of medicine and women’s health, as it represented a grassroots movement by women to find relief from health issues that had previously been ignored or stigmatized.

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