Worst Medical Patent of the Century?

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Most medical patents help you get healthier and as a medical device patent attorney, I take a special interest in news and commentary relating to medical and dental patents.  I came across this one medical patent, however, that allegedly killed thousands of people, many of them women and children.

Imagine the following scenario…

You step onto a harmless looking machine. On top of the machine are three viewing ports. One for you. One for your mother. And one for the clueless machine operator. With the push of a button, all three of you are exposed to 20 to 45 seconds of radiation.

To put that into perspective, today’s x-rays only last long enough to take a picture…usually less than a second.

The result? Birth defects, tumors, cancer and death.

Does that sound like a horrible Nazi experiment? Well it’s not. It’s actually occurred in thousands of shoe stores across the United States did from the 1930’s to 1950’s. You read that right…shoe stores.

Dangerous Use of a Worthwhile Medical Patent

x ray patentThe medical device is called a shoe fitting fluoroscope. It used radiation to produce an x-ray of the foot inside a shoe (to help in fitting). The three viewing ports on the top of the cabinet would allow you to see a fluorescent image of the bones of the feet and the outline of the shoes.

Used mainly as a gimmicky marketing tool, it was a common fixture in shoe stores during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. A typical unit, like the Adrian machine shown here, consisted of a vertical wooden cabinet with an opening near the bottom into which the feet were placed.

Most units also had a push button timer that could be set to a desired exposure time. The most common setting was 20 seconds.

Medical Patent Worst for Operator

A 20 second dose of low level radiation won’t kill you. But multiple doses every day for a few years will. This patented machine wasn’t nearly as dangerous to the customer as it was for the shoe salesman.

patent ad

Ad for the Fluoroscope Shoe Fitting Machine

For example, to show how a shoe fit many salesperson would put their hands into the x-ray beam to squeeze the shoe during the fitting. As a result, one saleswoman who had operated a shoe fitting fluoroscope 10 to 20 times each day over a ten year period developed dermatitis of the hands.

One of the more serious injuries linked to the operation of these machines involved a shoe model who received such a serious radiation burn that her leg had to be amputated.

This is one medical patent that goes down amongst the worst of the century.

Sources for this patent story:

Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope 


Museum of Quakery 

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