The 19th century was overloaded with wacky tonics, devices, and medical schemes . Business Men everywhere hoped to corner the healthcare market and to get rich quick with their crowd-appealing slogans and unrealistic promises of restored health and rapid remedies. One especially creative man, George A. Scott became wealthy with the release of his electric products that promised to cure everything from baldness to gout. 

George Scott was an English businessman who had no formal medical training whatsoever, yet he made a killing off of several “medical” devices he had invented for home use. He received his first U.S. patent for a molded hairbrush handle in 1872 and officially released his electric hairbrush in 1880. The brushes and his other products were not actually electrified, they were magnetized. A slightly magnetized iron rod was embedded into the plastic brush handle. His patent request contained the following statement: The object of the invention is to secure within the interior of the brush one or more natural or artificial magnets, which, according to the belief of many persons, founded upon a theory of magneto-therapeutics which has become widely prevalent, have the effect of rendering brushes to which they are applied advantageous in use for relieving headache, preventing baldness, and other similar purposes.” It does not necessarily make a direct claim to be a medical device but later advertisements do specifically say that the “electrified” products could cure rheumatism, sciatica, gout, neuralgia, toothache, baldness, malarial lameness, aches and pains, impaired circulation, backaches, premature gray hair, constipation, paralysis, headaches, and more.  

Dr. Scott’s Electric Flesh Brush, 1882

Besides the hair brush, he would go on to distribute horse brushes, body brushes, button hooks, corsets, magnetic belts and wristlets. The brushes were quite pretty, made of molded black plastic that looked like ebony with detailed designs along the back and handle. Each brush came with a small compass that illustrated to the user the item’s power. The magnetic rod could manipulate the needle of the compass, illustrating that the brush was working properly. The box that the product came in claimed that it was used daily by the royal family. Instructions specified that the brush was to only be used by one person, otherwise it would be rendered less effective. This smart marketing technique not only encouraged families to purchase a brush for each member of their household, but also made the product’s ineffectiveness explained through communal use. Eventually George Scott’s products fell out of favor in the 1890s and were rapidly replaced with new fad items. One has to admit that a hairbrush that can make your hair grow, cure your headaches, and improve your general health just sounds far too good to be true! 

This product reminds me a lot of those magnetic bracelets that were thought to improve the wearer’s balance and mood. There is little to no evidence to support the claim that these products have any therapeutic benefit whatsoever. Any positive experiences with them can most likely be explained by the placebo effect. For instance, if someone firmly believes a sugar pill is actually strong medicine that will cure their pain, they may trick their mind into believing that they feel better after having taken it regardless of the fact that the pill actually did nothing curative. The same thing could have happened with the hairbrushes. The user believed that it was supposed to make them feel energized and well, therefore, they felt that way after using it. 

Until Next Time

N.F.

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