The Real McCoy

July 2, 2010

“Joe, you need to have your head examined,” he said, his eyes twinkling. And so Bob McCoy placed the metal cage of his antique phrenology machine over my head, adjusted numerous probes to fit my cranial contours, and set the “psychograph” into motion. Some day I’ll rediscover where I’ve put the photo Bob made of me and the machine’s printout of my reading (did it say I was exceedingly modest?), but truth is I’m a bit too saddened to function at my best.

I just belatedly learned of Bob’s death, which occurred on May 23, 2010, due to Alzheimer’s. He was 83. Robert McCoy—who could have won a W.C. Fields lookalike contest—was best known as curator of The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices which was a fixture in downtown Minneapolis for many years. There, once slipping away from an area conference, Paul Kurtz and I took in his impressive collection. American Medical News (September 21, 1990) once called him “a barker for common sense in a carnival of medical quackery.”

He was much, much more. A devoted skeptic and secular humanist minister, the former steel salesman was also a committed activist on other controversial issues. His obituary in the Star Tribune noted: “In the 1960s, he lobbied for Minnesota prison reform for mentally ill convicts. He ran an underground abortion referral service until the procedure was legalized in 1973. After Roe vs. Wade, he became director of the state’s first legal abortion clinic, Meadowbrook Women’s Clinic in St. Louis Park.”

But it was his crusade against medical quackery for which he will best be remembered. Adopting the style of a showman, he used his gifts of storytelling and humor to impart a serious message. “I believe that laughter is a better means of communication than to hit people over the head with the facts,” he told American Medical News . “But I also let people know about the cost in human terms of these devices and theories.

“I remind people about Peter Sellers, who went to people who claimed to remove the bad tissue from his heart non-surgically shortly before he died of a heart attack. And there’s Steve McQueen, who went to Mexico for coffee enemas to cure his terminal cancer.

“No one knows how many died because they came under the influence of one of these quacks.”

Bob suited actions to his words. He was the real McCoy.