16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare

Megan Hamilton - January 13, 2019

Medical devices from the early part of the 1900s looked like torture devices dreamed up by the devil himself. They were so bizarre looking in some cases, that medieval torture devices looked kind by comparison. And that includes such torture devices as the rack — once used to pull a victim’s limbs off. Quite obviously our ancestors were built of stronger stuff, but with hairy-scary devices like the Electro-Retinogram and the Electrical Bath Machine, it’s more than clear why they needed to be.

The terrifying technology behind these medical instruments of the late 19th and early 20th Century definitely looks dated. But no matter how scary these devices appear, they paved the way for science and innovation, creating some of the most important advances in medicine today.

That includes such ominous instruments as:

1. This pulmonary resuscitation machine from 1908

Looking as if it could inhale your very soul, mechanical ventilators like this were designed to prevent miners from dying of gas asphyxiation. Invented by Heinrich Drager in 1907, the first machine was called the Pulmonator. Despite its ominous Dr. Lecter/Silence of The Lambs appearance, the machine’s function was to keep people alive until the effects from the gas wore off. Connected to an oxygen tank, the gadget was powered by oxygen pressure which alternated between positive and negative pressure to provide breaths. It helped the patient inhale and exhale to breathe properly.

A later model, designed by Drager’s son Bernard, and engineer Hans Schroder, administered pressure in cycles. Which means it continued to breathe until the designated pressure was met, thus ensuring a patient’s lungs wouldn’t over-inflate. This model turned out to be quite successful and was easier for doctors to use. In 1908, it went into serial production, and within five years 3,000 Pulmotors were in use. That number jumped to 12,000 in 1946. Indeed, Pulmotors had a successful run, all the way up until the mid-1970s when they were replaced by more sophisticated ventilators.

2. The 1930s Freckle removing machine from Hell

This machine is the nightmare you have when you really hate yourself. Developed in the 1930s by Italian physician M. Matarasso, this Frankensteinian machine used carbon dioxide in the form of dry ice to freeze freckles. The only thing that would make this machine scarier is if it had electrical bolts zapping everything in tarnation. But despite its fearsome visage, this freckle-freezing gizmo was fairly innocuous. The dry ice was shaped into a pencil and used to briefly touched each freckle. After a week or so, the freckles dropped off.

Over time, this scary-looking machine has morphed into more sophisticated methods to remove freckles, and many of these methods still use carbon dioxide. This includes laser treatments that use carbon dioxide beams to remove age spots, freckles or scars.

Who knew this machine wasn’t so hellish after all?

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
The iron lung came into use during one of the nation’s worst polio outbreaks, beginning in the early 1950s. Image license Public Domain, Canada. by Conrad Poirier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

3. The iron lung

For much of the earlier part of the 1900s, Americans were gripped by the fear of a nasty virus, especially as summer turned into late summer when “polio season” began. Public pools were closed, and patrons at movie theaters were warned not to sit next to each other in a futile effort to prevent the spread of the disease. Insurance companies even sold “polio insurance” for newborns. By the 1950s, polio was widespread, so it’s understandable that people were afraid of this horrible virus that caused paralysis and death. In 1952 nearly 60,000 kids were infected with polio, leaving thousands paralyzed. Affecting rich and poor people alike, more than 3,000 died that year.

Along came the iron lung. Also called the tank respirator, it helped patients breathe if polio paralyzed their lung muscles. Invented by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw, the first iron lung was a tank respirator that provided artificial respiration until the afflicted person could breathe on their own again. It was a process that usually took a couple of weeks. In the1930s, these machines cost $1500, an exorbitant price because that was the going rate for houses back in the day. Nevertheless, in 1959, 1200 people were using tank respirators in the U.S. By 2004, only 39 people needed these machines, largely thanks to a life-saving vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk that upended the virus’s reign in the U.S.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
The Electroretinogram was used to measure electrical impulses in a patient’s retinas. Image License World Health Organization by P. Almasy via Wikimedia Commons

4. The 1950s Electroretinogram

Studded with electrodes and wires, the Electroretinogram looks intimidating, but the device is actually useful, even today. Modern versions, however, are considerably more streamlined. Also called the ERG, the Electroretinogram tests to see how the retinas in the back of our eyes are working, and if there are any signs of disease. It can actually detect diseases like retinitis pigmentosa (RP), disorders that mimic RP, Usher Syndrome (a condition that affects vision and hearing), and scores of other diseases and disorders. For this test, patients are given eyedrops that dilate and anesthetize their eyes and their eyelids are propped open. An electrode attached to a contact lens is placed in each eye. An extra electrode is placed on the skin to act as a ground for the faint electrical signals produced by the retina. The patient is then tested with a series of red and blue lights to see how the retina reacts.

But electroretinography got its start in 1865 when Swedish physiologist Alarik Frithiof Holmgren began testing the procedure on amphibians. Researchers discovered that the stimulus provided by light could change the electrical potential of the creature’s eye. Then in 1877, Scotland’s James Dewar began testing the procedure on people. However, ERG wasn’t widely used until 1941, when Lorin Riggs, an American psychologist, introduced the contact lens electrode.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
Invented in 1907, the Hirtz compass made it easier for doctors to locate and remove bullets and shrapnel. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution-only license CC BY 4.0

5. The Hirtz Compass

The Hirtz compass was invented in 1907 by French radiologist E.J. Hirtz. Consisting of several needle-like moveable legs, the device made it possible for medics to pinpoint the location of bullets and shrapnel to within a millimeter or two. Used in conjunction with the recently developed technique of X-ray imaging, the compass really came into its own during WWI because it could determine the depth and direction of a projectile. A needle touched the skin and the compass gave the exact location and depth of the fragment. Then the compass was removed and the surgeon made an incision. Pressing a finger over the incision, the surgeon fastened the compass in place just above his hand. Then the needle was slid into the incision, allowing the surgeon to feel when the needle touched the fragment and thus remove it.

World War I is largely regarded as the bloodiest war in modern history. More than 10 million soldiers lost their lives in the conflict. When you add in civilian casualties that number rises to an estimated 37 million people. However, despite this being a time of horrific tragedies, it was also a medical renaissance, of sorts, because health care professionals were pushed to create life-saving innovations. Newer and deadlier methods of maiming and killing were being invented, and newer and more effective life-saving measures were following along in lockstep.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
Invented by J.S. Haldane, this bizarre medical device made it possible to avoid the effects of toxic gases in WWI. Image license credit: Science Museum, London, via Wellcome Images. CC 4.0

6. J.S. Haldane’s creepy, life-saving oxygen therapy apparatus

WWI was without a doubt, the age of poison gases, which led to advances in ways of fighting their deadly effects. In 2015, the Germans were the first to wage a full-scale assault using poison gases, something that was considered a war crime per the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the 1907 Hague Convention. But the gases effectively reached behind enemy lines, so the reasons why the Germans did this are understandable if horrible. Chlorine gas was used on Allied forces in the first attack in the spring of 2015. It works by destroying a victim’s lungs and respiratory system in mere hours. British medical personnel was ill-equipped for such a devastating new weapon.

Enter J.S. Haldane

British physiologist and philosopher John Scott Haldane was noted for his research on the physiology of the respiratory system. He developed numerous procedures for studying the physiology of breathing and physiology of the blood, which enabled him to analyze gases consumed or produced by the body. So he traveled to the front lines to research which gases were used and how to lessen their impact. Thus he came up with the peculiar-looking oxygen therapy apparatus, which was based on the discovery that increasing oxygen levels in the blood helped counter the effects of the deadly gases. Those four stretchy tubes ended in suction masks that treated four people concurrently. It became a crucial part of the gas treatment units stationed on the front lines.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
Eye injuries were common during WWI and 22,000 glass eyes were distributed to victims across Britain. Image License Wellcome Collection Wellcome Blog Post Attribution 4.0 International via Wikimedia Commons

7. The prosthetic eyes have it

Explosions, deadly gases, bullets, and venereal diseases caused considerable eye damage during WWI and there was little medical advancement that could help soldiers regain eyesight. But artificial eyes had been developed, and in a nearly three-year period from December 1916 through August 1919, more than 22,000 glass eyes were distributed across Britain by the Army Spectacle Depot. U.S. soldiers on Europe’s frontlines also had a pressing need for glass eyes, mostly due to firearms and flying, splintering shrapnel. Disease and the habit of drinking wood alcohol, which destroys eyesight also played a part. Over time, more than 800 American soldiers and sailors were blinded in one or both eyes.

The U.S. was in a bind. Germany was one of the largest manufacturers of optical glass, exporting just under 400,000 tons of optical glass annually by 1912. Only 25 percent made its way to Great Britain and the U.S. So the allied nations were beholden to Germany for the necessary materials. To remedy the situation, companies like Bausch & Lomb, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and the Spencer Lens Company began producing optical glass en masse in 1917. Over the course of one year, scientists produced more than 650,000 pounds of glass to benefit the war effort. Soldiers were usually fitted with eyes that were painted to match the one that remained.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
Sure this machine looks like a monster-sized bug zapper, but over time these odd contraptions led to sun bed therapy. Image by MessyNessieChic.

8. Electric baths, giant bug zappers, and Dr. Harvey Kellogg

When it comes to oddball ideas, few people reigned more supremely than Dr. Harvey Kellogg, best known for his beloved cornflakes. His mind overflowed with the blueprints for all sorts of peculiar gadgets, but one of his most popular notions was that known as the “electric bath.” Which looked like a giant bug zapper. Not long after his friend Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879, Kellogg began working on what he called the “electric light bath,” at the sanitarium he ran in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he practiced holistic methods in the hopes of promoting good health. And the idea of light therapy really grabbed his attention. Which means he invented corn flakes and the tanning bed. Yes, he did. Really.

And electric baths did seem to work. For some things at least. Sunlight, whether natural or produced artificially, was understood to be quite healthy for us, especially if used all over the body. In the 1890s, it was discovered that ultraviolet could kill bacteria, and in 1903, Denmark’s Niels Finsen received the Nobel Prize for his work in treating skin tuberculosis by using ultraviolet light. Soon, light therapy was used to treat circulatory diseases, anemia, varicose veins, heart disease, polio, and tuberculosis. And its success rates were substantial. By 1947, more than 80,000 people had been treated and success rates were around 50-80 percent.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
Electroconvulsive therapy is controversial, although it is still used today. Image license CC SA 2.0 by University of Liverpool Faculty of Health and Life Sciences via Wikimedia Commons

9. Electroconvulsive therapy

Developed in Italy during the 1930s, psychiatrists found that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) helped relieve symptoms of mental illness. But it worked in a rather disconcerting way — by inducing seizures through the use of electricity. Before the advent of ECT, the use of chemicals, especially one called Metrazole, was commonplace. But Metrazole had a rather nasty side effect: It created terror for some people prior to inducing a seizure. And some people were understandably so afraid of it that doctors and nurses had to chase them down to administer the drug. So Italian researchers were looking for a humane and less frightening way to induce seizures.

But while ECT could be used for good, it could also be used for evil. Evidence shows that while this therapy is beneficial for many patients it was also used to coerce those who were more difficult to control. It was an effective way to maintain order on the wards. And while modern methods of ECT are much safer, the treatment was actually physically dangerous back then. Perhaps the most famous portrayal of ECT comes from the movie “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” which starred Jack Nicholson. The movie was based on a novel by Ken Kesey, who worked at a mental hospital in the 1950s.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
Developed by Willem Einthoven, the electrocardiograph measured electrical activity in the heart. Image license Public Domain, U.S. via Wikimedia Commons

10. The Electrocardiograph

This machine doesn’t look intimidating, except for the man sticking his arms and one foot in buckets of water that are connected to electrical wires. That’s worrisome. But to fully describe how this machine functions, one must backtrack to 1843. Thanks to Italian physician Luigi Galvani, scientists knew the heart emitted electrical activity. What scientists didn’t know, was how to measure and record this activity. So they struggled, until British physiologist Augustus Desiré Waller, who used a device called a Lippmann capillary electrometer, a tube filled with mercury (which conducts electricity). If an electrical current generated by a patient’s heart was applied to the tube, it caused surface tension in the column of mercury to shift. Now a microscope could be used to observe the changes. It was a slow and rather imprecise way to measure the heart’s electrical impulses, but it intrigued Willem Einthoven, who invented the electrocardiograph in 1903.

Einthoven’s first step was to make Waller’s results a bit more specific. The results had recorded four distinct points of electrical activity in the heart, and these points were labeled A, B, C, and D. Then he got to work developing a mathematical formula the margin of error that was part and parcel of the displacement curve in the mercury column and developed a more sensitive reading that revealed five points of electrical activity, which he labeled P, Q, R, S, and T. This has proven extremely accurate and it’s still used to describe advanced readings of the heart today.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare

11. The Electroencephalograph Machine

In 1875, Richard Caton, a British physiologist, and surgeon from Liverpool wrote a landmark report for the British Medical Journal noting that he had successfully recorded weak electrical currents from the brains of monkeys and rabbits. It was the first-ever report of its kind. By placing unipolar electrodes (which have a single conductor lead with an electrode at the tip) on both hemispheres of the brain, or on the cerebral cortex, or alternately on the grey matter and the surface of the skull, Caton was able to measure the weak electrical currents. Using a galvanometer, the young doctor was able to measure the electrical currents, and he noticed something intriguing — the currents increased during sleep. However, they were vulnerable to anoxia (absence of oxygen) and anesthesia and of course, vanished when the animal died.

But Caton made other fascinating discoveries: The electrical currents became especially strong when a light was shone into the eyes. And sensory stimulation also caused the currents to change. Tragically, his remarkable discoveries, little was reported about his work. Fellow electrophysiologists neglected to mention the discoveries, and frankly, he’s mainly remembered for becoming Liverpool’s Lord-Mayor in 1907. Even his obituary column in the renowned periodical The Lancet failed to mention his contribution to the understanding of electrophysiology.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
The first artificial kidney, the Kolff Rotating Drum was a rather slap-dash device. Image license CC SA 4.0, 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0 by Superikonoskop via Wikimedia Commons

12. The first artificial kidney machine

As a physician practicing in Groeningen, the Netherlands in 1943, Willem Johan Kolff grew frustrated at watching young patients die from kidney failure. He knew there had to be some way to remove kidney-damaging toxins from the blood. So he began working on his first dialysis machine in 1943 while the Netherlands were under Nazi occupation. But materials were a rare commodity. So jerry-rigging was in order. Using cellophane sausage skin, a car pump, and a slatted revolving drum, he came up with the Kolff Rotating Drum. It was a rather ramshackle device, and unfortunately, 15 of his patients didn’t survive. But the 16th patient, a 67-year-old woman did. After 11 hours of therapy.

So how did the Kolff Rotating Drum work?

Using a 20-meter long tube of sausage casing wrapped around the slatted rotating drum, an electric motor did most of the work. Suspended in a tank filled with a fluid that bathed and drew toxins out of the bloodstream and also provided it with electrolytes, the treatment drained blood from the patient which filled a sterile jug. Blood-thinning drugs were added, the jug was hung above the machine and linked to the sausage casing. Turning the drum, the motor filled the casing with blood, and wastes were filtered through the casing into the fluid in the tank. Now cleansed, the blood flowed into a second sterile jug hung above the other end of the machine. The six-hour treatment culminated with the blood flowing back into the patient.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
An early sphygmomanomter, or blood pressure machine, developed in 1922. Image license CC Flickr The Commons by Internet Archive Book Images

13. The Mercury Sphygmomanometer

Before the invention of the sphygmograph in by Étienne Jules Marey in 1860, taking a patient’s blood pressure was a rather stabby affair, because it required the puncturing of an artery. It was a while before researchers developed the sphygmomanometer we recognize today. The sphygmograph detected blood pressure by discovering the weight at which the radial pulse grew silent. Then Italian internist and pediatrician Scipioni Riva-Rocci discovered that adding mercury to a glass tube made it easier to measure blood pressure. But obtaining and keeping the blood pressure uniform against the patient’s artery was challenging.

Then in the mid-1890s, he developed the inflatable cuff most of us are familiar with today. This new sphygmomanometer incorporated the cuff, which quieted the brachial artery, and the mercury tube. But the sphygmomanometer could only read the systolic blood pressure (which measures the pressure in blood vessels when the heart is beating) and not the diastolic (which measures the pressure between beats.) Then in 1905, Russian surgeon Nikolai Korotkoff came up with the stethoscope, allowing the diastolic portion to be read. Now you know who to thank the next time a technician takes your blood pressure.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
If you didn’t know any better you’d think this creepy device was from the movie “Alien.” Image by ListVerse

14. This Dental Phantom recalls the movie alien — before the movie was even written

This rather nightmarish device looks like it was designed by H.R. Giger for the movie “Alien,” but it was actually a tool that allowed doctors to learn and practice different techniques. It definitely looks intimidating and probably originated in the earlier part of the 1930s. Made of aluminum, the model above was likely covered by a rubber head, now lost to eternity. Older versions didn’t have the “Robocop” look that the model above has. But there is something extra creepy about dental phantoms: Many versions use human teeth pulled from corpses.

Despite its creepiness, modern iterations of this device, invented by Edward Oswald Fergus in 1894, are used widely today, especially by students learning dental techniques. Fergus, born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1861, earned a Licentiate in Dental Surgery of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in 1884. After working as an assistant dental surgeon at the Glasgow Dental Hospital and School, he traveled to the U.S. and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Doctor of Dental Surgery in 1892. Back in Glasgow, he began practicing dentistry again. The phantom is now a critical component of dental training worldwide.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
These small cages housed lice infected with typhus. Image: Copyright Fair Use, United States Copyright law.

15. Wearing lice to fight typhus

Throughout wartime, typhus has killed ruthlessly. Caused by the bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii, delirium, gangrenous sores, and death are the results. The disease wiped out over 300,000 French soldiers during Napoleon’s infamous 1812 retreat from Russia. And the cause of this hellish disease was mysterious. Then, in the early 20th Century, French bacteriologist Charles Nicolle noticed that typhus patients who took hot baths and were given clean clothes were no longer infectious. He was certain human lice were spreading the disease. and his discovery prompted the Western Front to establish delousing stations in WWI. People on the Eastern front, where these stations weren’t established, were tragically less fortunate. The disease went on the rampage, wiping out millions of civilians in Russia, Romania, and Poland.

In the interim between WWI and WWII, Polish biologist Rudolf Weigl began experimenting, hoping to develop a vaccine. Using guinea pigs early on, he graduated to people in 1933. During a 12-day period, uninfected lice were placed in cages, then strapped to a person’s calves or thighs so that they could feed daily for up to 45 minutes. Then the lice were injected with R. prowazekii thus infecting them with typhus. Weigl allowed them to feed on people who had been vaccinated for an additional five days. And the vaccine, made from the crushed guts of infected lice that were made into a paste, was hugely successful. So much so, that the few human subjects (including Wiegl himself) who developed typhus recovered almost immediately.

But I’ve saved this truly sinister device for last.

16 Medical Procedures and Devices from the Early 1900s that are Straight Out of a Nightmare
The cranioclast was developed to remove a dead fetus from a mother’s womb to prevent her from dying. Image license CC SA 3.0 by Sarindam7 via Wikimedia Commons

16. The Cranioclast

Looks like a harmless pair of salad tongs, doesn’t it? But harmless it isn’t. In the latter part of the 19th Century, complicated births often resulted in the deaths of mother and child. This was especially true if the baby was too large to pass through the mother’s pelvis. To save the mother’s life, instruments like the cranioclast needed to be used to remove a fetus in such cases. Developed by Dr. James Simpson in the mid-nineteenth century, the cranioclast crushed a fetus’s skull, making it easier to remove. It may seem gruesome, but maternal deaths weren’t uncommon. Even as late as 1915, 70 women died for every 10,000 births. That rate has since dropped to one woman for every 10,000 births.

The instrument consisted of a very strong pair of forceps with heavy blades that could be pulled together through the use of a wingnut clamp. The purpose of crushing the skull was to make it easier for the fetus to pass through the birth canal, and sometimes normal uterine contractions would take over after that. And sometimes not. In these cases, a physician would have to pull the fetus out with an obstetrical hook.

So yes, the cranioclast was gruesome, but like nearly all of these medical devices proved crucial and led to some pretty astonishing developments in medicine, improving the lives of millions of people.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Medical Devices From The Early 1900s Were Absolutely Terrifying — Amanda Sedlak Hevener, Ranker

1907: The First Mechanical Ventilator: The Pulmotor, John Bottrell, Asthma History

A Hundred Years Of Ventilation, HealthcareInEurope.com

Freckles Frozen Off With Dry Ice (Feb. 1933) Modern Mechanix

SkinCareGuide: 7 Best Ways To Get Rid Of Freckles

Wiping Out Polio: How The U.S. Snuffed Out A Killer

What Ever Happened To Polio? The Iron Lung And Other Equipment. Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Electroretinography, MedicineNet, John Sheppard, M.D.

Usher Syndrome, MedicineNet

Having An Electroretinogram, Moorfield’s Eye Hospital

Electroretinogram, American Academy of Ophthalmology, EyeWiki

The Electroretinogram: ERG, Ido Perlman. NCBI Bookshelf

The Horse Soldier, Hirtz Medical Compass

How One Of History’s Bloodiest Wars Eventually Saved Lives, Amanda Ruggeri, The BBC

The Hirtz Compass, Wikipedia

How Many People Died In WWI, History On The Net

Hague Convention, Written by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica

The Eye At War: American Eye Prosthetics During The World Wars, Evan P. Sullivan. Nursing Clio

Electric Baths Of Yesteryear, MessyNessy

Electroconvulsive Therapy: A History Of Controversy, But Also Of Help. Jonathan Sadowsky, Scientific American

Electric Potential, The Free Dictionary

Electrocardiograph — 1903, Magnet Academy

Hans Berger (1873-1941), Richard Caton (1842-1926), and electroencephalography. BMJ Journals

Electroencephalography (EEG), South Australian Medical Heritage Society Inc.

Brought To Life: Willem Kolff (1911-2009)

Home Dialysis Central, Dialysis Machine Museum — Kolff Rotating Drum

Smithsonian, National Museum of American History. Kolff-Brigham Artificial Kidney

7 Vintage Medical Equipment Nurses Used In The Past. NurseBuff

Sphygmomanometers, Early-Mid 20th Century, Joanna Church, A Fine Collection

The Mercury Sphygmomanometer: End Of An Era? Healio

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention: Measuring Blood Pressure

10 Terrifying Historic Medical Instruments, NeNe Adams. Listverse

The History of Vaccines: Typhus, War and Vaccines, Karie Youngdahl

From The Collection: Cranioclast. Museum Of Healthcare At Kingston

America’s Health Rankings. What It Was Like Being Pregnant In 2015, Anita Manning

Braun Cranioclast by Reiser. Physick.com