10 failed inventions by brilliant physicians

By Jennifer Leavitt, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 30, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Several renowned doctors, despite their intentions and initial acclaim, devised treatments and procedures that ultimately proved harmful or ineffective. 

  • Examples include Dr. Egas Moniz's prefrontal lobotomy, Dr. Henry Cotton's focal infection theory, and Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg's malarial therapy. 

  • These interventions often led to severe side effects, complications, or deaths, and were later abandoned or discredited. These early efforts, however, contributed to the development of improved techniques and treatments in the future.

Even the most brilliant medical minds have encountered failures or setbacks. These experiences, while often disastrous, provided valuable lessons that paved the way for future medical advancements.

Here are 10 notable examples of such endeavors from the annals of medical history. From ill-fated surgeries to misguided therapies, these stories underscore the importance of perseverance and continuous improvement in the quest for better healthcare solutions.

Electric Light Bath

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg is best remembered as the inventor of the breakfast cereal Corn Flakes, but he also conceived of a number of health inventions, including the Electric Light Bath.

Kellogg believed that bathing in electric light would cure a variety of ailments by improving circulation and eliminating toxins. The “bath” featured a large, box-like cabinet lined with incandescent light bulbs. Patients would sit inside the cabinet, surrounded by light, while their heads remained outside, similar in set up to the portable infrared saunas sold online. Despite his reputation as a pioneering health reformer, the Electric Light Bath did not prove to have any of the alleged therapeutic benefits, and it soon fell into obscurity.[][]

Prefrontal lobotomy

Nobel laureate Dr. Egas Moniz devised the prefrontal lobotomy procedure in the 1930s as a treatment for severe mental illness. Initially celebrated, the macabre procedure involved severing portions of the prefrontal cortex. The surgery led to severe side effects, including personality changes, reduced cognitive function, and even death.

Eventually, the medical community and much of society realized how misguided Dr. Moniz was and deemed lobotomies completely inhumane. The procedure was permanently discontinued.[]

Focal infection theory

A prominent American psychiatrist in the early 20th century, Dr. Henry Cotton sang the praises of his focal infection theory far and wide, believing that mental illnesses were caused by bacteria (though he did not seem to theorize on specific strains).

He performed many surgeries, removing teeth, tonsils, and even parts of the colon, in an attempt to cure psychiatric patients. These drastic and often dangerous procedures did not cure mental illness and were ultimately discredited.[]


Dr. David Auth invented the Rotablator, designed to grind away arterial plaque using a rotating burr, but it faced technical challenges as well as many clinical complications.[] It was not well regarded among his medical colleagues at first.[]

Later, with the addition of smaller, diamond-coated burrs, variable speed control, and improved catheter design, the Rotoblator slowly became more effective.

Today, the Rotoblator is in use with enhanced lubrication, safety features, and ergonomics, and has come a long way from the initial disappointing invention.[]

Malarial therapy

Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery that inducing malaria could treat neurosyphilis by causing a high fever.

Initially, the intervention appeared to be effective, but it was incredibly dangerous, leading to countless complications and deaths from malaria. Fortunately, with the advent of antibiotics, malarial therapy quickly became obsolete.[]

Radical mastectomy

A pioneering surgeon, Dr. William Halsted introduced the radical mastectomy as a treatment for breast cancer. This extensive surgery involved removing the breast, underlying chest muscle, and surrounding lymph nodes.

It was standard treatment for decades but caused significant physical and emotional trauma for patients, and patient outcomes did not justify the means. Survival rates were subsequently shown to be no better from radical mastectomy than with less invasive procedures.[]

Goat testicle transplants

Dr. John R. Brinkley’s brilliance lay in his extraordinary marketing skills and business acumen. He used radio to advertise his services, creating one of the most powerful radio stations of his time and revolutionizing direct-to-consumer advertising.

Medically, he was a controversial figure for his entire career.

His most outrageous claim was that transplanting goat testicles into humans could cure impotence and restore virility.[]

Despite countless lawsuits and a lack of medical evidence, Dr. Brinkley continued his practice for years, causing many infections, complications, and even deaths.[]

Early versions of gender reassignment surgery

While his contributions are now recognized as groundbreaking, Dr. Stanley Biber’s early gender reassignment surgeries were fraught with complications due to the lack of standardized techniques and proper postoperative care. Many of his patients suffered from infections, poor surgical outcomes, and psychological distress.

Those early setbacks overshadowed his later successes and the fact that he paved the way for today’s gender affirming surgeries. His haste highlights the significant risks involved in experimental surgeries without established protocols.[]

Transorbital lobotomy

Dr. Walter Freeman, an American neurologist, established a variation of Moniz's prefrontal lobotomy known as the transorbital lobotomy. The procedure required insertion of an ice-pick-like instrument through the eye socket to sever brain connections.

Freeman performed thousands of these lobotomies, usually with disastrous results, including neurological impairment and fatalities. As with its predecessor, the practice was eventually abandoned.[]

The Baruch Solution

Prominent 19th-century physician Dr. Simon Baruch was an early advocate of hydrotherapy, using water to treat a broad range of illnesses. His methods included both drinking water and bathing in it. He developed techniques, such as hot and cold baths, compresses, and douches, customizing treatments to the specific conditions of his patients.

The Baruch Solution, which sometimes involved adding substances like salts or herbal extracts, promised to cure everything from rheumatism to tuberculosis, but was largely ineffective. The regimen never delivered the promised health benefits and failed to gain lasting acceptance among his peers.[]

What this means for you

Even those with brilliant medical minds have often suffered at least one setback, if not a downright disaster or two. Failures often provide valuable lessons, though, and pave the way for future innovations. 

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