Discoveries Magazine

Cedars-Sinai

Short List of Failed Innovations

SOME DRUGS AND DEVICES CATAPULT MEDICAL SCIENCE INTO PREVIOUSLY UNFATHOMABLE HEIGHTS OF GREATNESS. OTHERS, NOT SO MUCH. HERE, AN INCOMPLETE COLLECTION OF TREATMENTS THAT FAILED, SOONER OR LATER.

4TH–19TH

CENTURIES BLOODLETTING AND LEECHING

Siphoning “bad” blood was once considered a cure-all, but many patients died from lack of blood. Leech bites often became infected, while leech-sharing spread disease. Leeching has made a minor comeback today, occasionally being used to aid blood flow to tissue grafts.


LATE 19TH–EARLY 20TH CENTURIES

VIOLET RAY

Invented by Nikola Tesla, it was intended to heal whatever ailed you, including “brain fog,” by delivering an electric current through a glowing purple wand. It even appeared in 1940s Wonder Woman comics as the “Purple Ray”—a device that could bring people back to life.


1937

ELIXIR SULFANILAMIDE

This antibiotic’s main ingredient—diethylene glycol—is now used in brake fluid. More than 100 people died after taking it for everything from sore throats to gonorrhea. Out of this tragedy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was born.


1930s & 1940s

LOBOTOMY

This Nobel Prize-winning treatment was used for conditions from moodiness to schizophrenia. One practitioner even used a kitchen ice pick. Results varied from slight personality changes and intellectual impairments to paralysis and death.


1950s TO 1970s

THALIDOMIDE

This “wonder drug,” intended to prevent morning sickness and miscarriage, was banned in agriculture for its toxic side effects but stayed on the general market for years, leaving 10,000-plus children with birth defects. Thanks to FDA vigilance, American babies were mostly spared.


1965

BIRTHING CENTRIFUGE

Meant to spin expectant mothers around and around, allowing centrifugal force to “gently” release the baby, the machine was fortunately never constructed. But it did inspire an opera, which premiered at Harvard University in 2013.


1990s

FEN-PHEN

Part appetite suppressant, part stimulant, this diet drug was prescribed to more than 18 million people in one year alone—then banned when it was found to cause heart valve problems and pulmonary hypertension.

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