Great Quackery Collector Dead

August 4, 2009

One of the world’s greatest collectors of medical quackery items died on March 10, 2009, at age 95. He was Dr. Olgierd (pronounced ole-GEARED) Lindan, a researcher and medical innovator at Cleveland-area hospitals. He was a Latvian-born immigrant who—according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer , July 5, 2009 (thanks to Sheldon Harper for the clipping)—“escaped the Soviets and Nazis, crossed the Pyrenees and the Sahara, performed surgery under fire, won the Polish Cross of Valor and earned two doctorates and a post-doctorate.”

A freethinker, he belonged to the South Shore Skeptics, and I first met him when I gave a lecture to that group. Lindan was a delightful personality, as I learned on several occasions, notably when he lectured at Center for Inquiry headquarters and twice when I spent the night at his mansion at South Euclid, Ohio. I recall an amusing story he once told. He had met a fellow collector, a man whose hobby was acquiring old tractor seats. When the man asked Lindan what his focus was, and received the reply that it was medical quackery, he shook his head in puzzlement, saying, “Some people collect the oddest things!” Olgierd Lindan maintained a friendly rivalry with fellow collectors in his field, once observing with a mischievous smile, “The greatest pleasure is to make the competition jealous.”

The Lindan collection filled his 1919 mansion. There, one could find the Womb Battery (that claimed to cure “feminine ills” by electrification of the uterus), a “Brain Tuneup” machine, Dr. Scott’s Electric Hairbrush to Cure Baldness, the Vision Dieter: Eye Glasses to Cure Appetite, and Dr. Weaver’s Nasal Filter, among 2,000 other items, including early X-ray machines that threw off great sparks. The items, said the Plain Dealer , “range from pretty little bottles and bracelets to curious helmets, belts and corsets to more than man-sized machines with flashing lights, spinning dials, and other complicated parts that would have looked high-tech a century or two ago.”

One of his treasures was an antique bottle labeled “Snake Oil” (i.e., rattlesnake grease), dating from the early to mid nineteenth century. Later, snake-oil liniments sometimes contained a trace of that substance in a mineral-oil base along with red pepper (probably to impart a soothing warmth to the skin) and traces of turpentine and camphor. The term snake oil later came to refer to cure-alls that were imbibed and did actually reduce pain, consisting largely of alcohol (see “In Search of Snake Oil,” chap. 25 of my Real-Life X-Files , 2001). Lindan collected them all.

Over the years, Olgierd Lindan appeared on David Letterman’s show as well as in the pages of U.S. News & World Report . Some of his collection was sold to the Museum of Quackery (now at the Science Museum of Minnesota), and one of his three sons, Nicholas Lindan, is looking to sell more of the “cures that don’t work for diseases you don’t have.” He promises, “If they work, I’ll give you your money back.”