I’m a sucker for a tale in which the American legal system is asked to rule on the legitimacy of a medical treatment. No matter how dubious a quack’s product, he or she can always scrounge up satisfied customers to attest to its power, as well as a few expert witnesses who will say almost anything for a buck. There is thus great drama in watching judges and jurors grapple with this deluge of disinformation—there are few truer ways to assess the current state of our nation’s scientific literacy.
An all-time favorite is the 1946 trial of Dinshah Ghadiali, an oddball physician infamous for his marketing of Spectro-Chrome machines. Ghadiali swore that all manner of ailments could be cured through the application of multi-colored lights, and he convinced a fair number of gullible Americans to pay for his expensive placebo. As this 2005 account from Cabinet points out, Ghadiali had been acquitted at an earlier trial in Buffalo, thanks to the testimony of three venerable surgeons who claimed that Spectro-Chrome therapy was legit. The proceedings in 1946 might well have gone that way, too, if not for a single dramatic turn that undermined the defense in a major way:
Ghadiali called 112 satisfied Spectro-Chrome users in his defense (fifty-seven of whom merely suffered from constipation) and the trial lasted two months as a result. Some of them had become quite dependent on their machines—one woman claimed she patted and talked to hers. But Ghadiali’s case effectively crumbled when a patient he claimed to have cured of epilepsy with “tonations of Orange Systemic,” went into seizures on the stand, slumped to the floor, vomited, and swallowed his tongue. A real doctor rushed over to him and stopped him from choking to death by holding his tongue down with a pencil. “The jury was sent out and the court was recessed,” read the FDA’s notes on the trial, “Dinshah P. Ghadiali stood coldly by and neglected to offer Spectro-Chrome treatment.” After seven and a half hours’ deliberation, the jury returned to declare Ghadiali guilty. His dream of having a “SPECTRO-CHROME IN EVERY HOME” ended when he was given a three-year prison sentence and fined $20,000; all his promotional literature was ordered to be burnt, and further production of Spectro-Chromes outlawed.
To Ghadiali’s credit, though, he fought the good fight regarding the right of Atlantic City women to bare their knees.