From donkey-milk baths in ancient Egypt to Botox shots in Beverly Hills, humans have long searched for ways to keep the aging process at bay. Over those centuries eager youth-seekers have also embraced the theories of countless quacks and crazies who claimed they had found the answer.
Here are 10 of the strangest anti-aging “cures” in modern times, based on contemporary news accounts, FBI files, and other sources. Anti-aging schemes, it seems, never get old.
In 1907, when statewide Prohibition laws were in effect in Maine, the American Bottler magazine reported that residents were enjoying homebrewed beer “infused with the root juices of dandelion and rhubarb, which is very popular among women who claim to be much younger than they are.” The beer, the magazine explained, “irons out the wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and plumps the cheeks, and adds a peachlike bloom of youth to the features.” Perhaps most appealing, there was no assigned dosage for this so-called “rejuvenator” other than to drink “as much as you want.”
Alois P. Swoboda, an Austrian immigrant to the United States, gave his name to a series of exercises he called Conscious Evolution. (“Not that it means anything, but it sounds rather scientific,” the Journal of the American Medical Association noted in a 1918 article on quackery.) Swoboda sold his course by mail and advertised it widely in periodicals of the day, charging as much as $20 (over $600 today) for what amounted to six sheets of paper depicting some arm exercises.
The exercises were probably harmless and maybe even beneficial, but where Swoboda crossed the line was in his extravagant claims for them. In addition to “curing” a long list of diseases, he said he’d “positively guarantee to restore youth to you, regardless of how old you may be. I guarantee to eradicate old age completely and permanently. I guarantee to give you perpetual youth.” Whatever else he may have been, Swoboda was certainly a gifted salesman. Among those who apparently gave his workout a try was Princeton professor and later U.S. president Woodrow Wilson.
The sight of naked men and women rolling in the snow in an Evanston, Illinois, backyard “in the belief that thus they will renew their youth” brought national attention to Dr. Henry E. Lane, proprietor of the Kosmos Physical Culture sanitarium, and his snow cure. Newspapers reported that the patients—age 45 to 65—also enjoyed a snowball fight. Prior to the snow cure, Lane, a genuine medical doctor, had pioneered the sun cure; it also called for outdoor nudity but in nicer weather. At first his office was located on the North Side of Chicago, but neighbors’ objections forced a move up the road to suburban Evanston around 1910. Seemingly baffled by all the fuss, he told the Chicago Tribune, “I do not see why anyone should complain.”
The illustrious “Dr.” John R. Brinkley (he bought his degree from a diploma mill) made himself internationally famous and fabulously wealthy by transplanting goat testicles into men and goat ovaries into women. Not only did the treatment restore youthful vigor, he insisted, but it could supposedly cure a list of ailments ranging from constipation to insanity [PDF]. “I have transplanted glands for almost every conceivable disease and have received splendid results in almost every case,” he wrote in 1920.
Brinkley built a radio station with a powerful transmitter to promote his practice nationwide but eventually lost both his medical and broadcasting licenses as a result of his reckless claims. Brinkley also inspired a herd of other goat gland docs. Dr. Clayton E. Wheeler, a surgeon with offices in Hollywood and San Francisco, did such a brisk business that he reportedly purchased all 40,000 wild goats on Catalina Island from the land’s owner, chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley.
Goats were not the only poor animals sacrificing their organs for the cause of human rejuvenation. In Paris, Russian-born surgeon Serge Voronoff began transplanting the testicles of orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas into mostly elderly—and usually rich—Frenchmen. By the early 1920s, he was in demand throughout the world. After he’d completed about 1000 operations, in 1927, he told The New York Times that he believed monkey gland transplants could allow humans to remain youthful for 125 years, after which they’d experience just a few months of old age, followed quickly by death.
Before long he was going through so many monkeys that he started his own monkey farm on the French Rivera to keep up with the demand. He also proposed using the organs of recently executed human prisoners but couldn’t get government permission.
In the early 20th century, as legitimate scientists experimented with practical uses for radioactive materials, anti-aging charlatans saw a glowing opportunity. None of them were more enterprising than “Dr.” William J. A. Bailey, another phony M.D., who maintained that by “ionizing” the endocrine glands (whatever that meant) he could reverse aging, cure insanity, and prevent a host of other ills.
Toward that end he offered a gizmo called the Radiendocrinator, a gold-colored metal box roughly the size of a deck of cards, containing a quantity of radium and selling for as much as $1000 (over $21000 today). Most customers seem to have been men, who were instructed to place the device into an athletic supporter and wear it under their genitals at night as a way of restoring their virility. But Williams pitched endocrine ionization to women as well. “The wrinkled face, the drawn skin, the dull eye, the listless gait, the faulty memory, the aching body, the destructive effects of sterility all spell imperfect endocrine performance,” he explained. And, of course, he had just the thing to fix it.
The Radiendocrinator wasn’t the only miracle cure in “Dr.” Bailey’s radioactive bag of tricks. Perhaps his most successful product was a bottled elixir called Radithor, which, among other bogus claims, promised “Rejuvenation Without Operation.” The bottle’s label indicated that its ingredients were radium, mesothorium, and distilled water, and, unfortunately, Doc Bailey wasn’t lying this time. Because Radithor was properly labeled, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was powerless to ban it.
Radithor and similar products fell from grace in 1932 with the widely publicized death of Eben Byers, a wealthy 51-year-old sportsman, who supposedly drank several bottles of the stuff every day for two years. Byers had been horribly disfigured by the supposed cure, losing his upper and lower jaws and most of his teeth.
Park G. Hammar, a retired St. Louis paint manufacturer, began to get attention for his unusual rejuvenation theories with the 1929 publication of his book Growing Young and Staying Young. Hammar, who founded a laboratory in Switzerland to test his concepts, recommended that people spend as much time as possible on all fours rather than standing erect (though he denied insisting that they walk around that way), sleep face down on logs, and gradually transition to a diet that consisted of nothing but coconuts. Plus, of course, total nudity. “There is no reason why man can not go on living indefinitely, for hundreds, even thousands, of years if they follow my plan,” he told a reporter in 1930. Hammar died in 1948 at age 84.
World War II gave Americans other things to worry about, but the post-war years saw a resurgence of anti-aging lunacy. Consider, for example, the Zarret Applicator: a plastic, dumbbell-shaped object purported to reverse the aging process and cure all manner of diseases [PDF]. While it’s unclear why it was named either Zarret or Applicator, contemporary commentators were quick to note that dumbbell was an apt description for anyone gullible enough to buy it.
The secret of the applicator was a mysterious liquid said to generate “positive Life Energy,” although tests later proved it to be tap water. At least it was easy to use, as one newspaper explained: “Hold the Zerret in both hands with all 10 fingers. Don’t cross your legs. Do this at least three times a day for 15 minutes.” The inventor, a onetime Chicago cab driver, apparently sold 1000 of the worthless devices at $50 a pop (about $640 each today), before he was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud.
A major figure among UFO buffs from the 1950s onward, former aircraft factory worker George Van Tassel not only claimed to have seen a flying saucer but to have been treated to a tour of one. The alien occupants apparently took a liking to him and, even after their departure, continued to send him messages through what he called “thought transfers.”
Based on his otherworldly friends’ instructions, plus some guidance from the Bible, he set to work building a structure in the California desert he called the Integratron. A round, domed building four stories tall and 55 feet in diameter, the Integratron was supposed to harness the electromagnetic forces of the Earth to prevent aging in the young and reverse it in the old, potentially increasing the normal human lifespan to between 300 and 1500 years. Van Tassel believed the Integration could treat as many as 10,000 people a day once it was up and running.
He worked on the building for close to two decades, but didn’t live to finish it or benefit from its miraculous powers. After his death in 1978, the project was abandoned [PDF]. He did achieve immortality of a sort, however: In 2018, the Integratron—which still stands in Landers, California, and is open to visitors—was named to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.