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The Pabst Mansion’s Offbeat Medicine

‘The Cutting Edge’ highlights medical practices from the 19th century

Jun. 9, 2010
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The millions of ads and gimmicks promoting hair restoration, hair removal, weight loss, weight gain and an endless procession of other quick-fix miracle cures may seem like a reflection of today’s consumer, but dubious medical claims aren’t a new phenomenon.

An upcoming exhibit hosted at the Pabst Mansion called “The Cutting Edge: Medical Practices and Quackery of the 19th Century”is set toshowcase the wacky and occasionally morbid “medical advances” of this era. It will “explore the horrific, hilarious and often hair-raising practices in 19th-century medicine that existed alongside such medical breakthroughs as anesthesia and X-rays,” curator Jodi Rich-Bartz says.

“The things that [doctors] did in the name of medicine are completely different from today,” Rich-Bartz adds.

Despite the solid medical developments that entered the 19th century's public arena,a market for miracle remedies and rash treatments ran rampant. Many of the “cures” may sound foolish in retrospect, but most people willdo anything totry to stay alive. By the turn of the 20th century, medical “quackery” ranked high in many social circles, though some individuals embraced theinnovative technology stemming from the birth of the Milwaukee Hospital and Marquette University’s School of Dentistry.

At this time, one of the truly sound inventions coming out of the medical field was anesthesia, which “up to this point, when you went in for surgery, [doctors] just started cutting on you. There was nothing to dull the pain,” Rich-Bartz says.

Also, cleanliness was a huge factor. “The biggest thing that came out of 19th-century medicine [besides X-rays and anesthesia] was the realization that they needed to sterilize things,” she adds. “Wash their hands, don’t go from one patient to the next doing multiple surgeries, etc.”

Dubious Products on Display

In addition to these recognizable and legitimate medical procedures still present today, the exhibit also calls attention to practices that often built up false hope. Featured attractions will consist of devices such as a bloodletting kit (used to drain infectious blood) and a portable surgeon’s kit from the Civil War containing a saw (used for on-site, mass amputations), as well as a portable surgeon’s table and wheelchair (which look like they rolled out of an old horror movie). Also, advertisements for various products and medical apparatuses used to inspect one’s bladder (a cystoscope), pull one’s teeth or encourage a healthy digestive tract (a bottle of Pabst Extract Tonic) will be presented.

Pabst Extract Tonic was just one of the illegitimate products promoted as a cure-all for nervous conditions through ads that cried out to the tired, the weak and the overworked.

So what does one do when stressed out, nervous or in need of a break? The doctor says…drink beer. This alcohol-enhanced “elixir” still resonates in the public’s mind today, but as a mode of after-hours relaxation. Not many doctors prescribe it.

Another invention referred to as the “Arnold Massage Vibrator” was also said to cure anything from baldness to consumption (tuberculosis), dandruff to gout and nervousness to obesity. Vibratory massage used electricity as a method of curing diseases by encouraging blood circulation and nerve stimulation, according to the product’s manual provided by the Pabst Mansion’s personal collection.

This manual reads, “There is no trouble, no inconvenience. The user simply holds the Arnold Massage Vibrator in one hand and passes over the part [of the body] it is desired to massage and at once feels the invigorating, vitalizing, health-giving effects of the increased blood circulation. A few minutes use every day works wonders.” Sound familiar?

“The Cutting Edge” opens June 11 and continues through Halloween night. Tickets start at $9 for adults and can be purchased at 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave. All proceeds go to the continued restoration of the Pabst Mansion. For further information, visit www.pabstmansion.com.


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