Robert McCoy, who took his "Questionable Medical Devices" collection onto national television shows and fought for controversial causes in Minnesota, died May 23 of Alzheimer's disease in a St. Louis Park care facility.

McCoy, who was 83 and had lived in Golden Valley, was a steel salesman, a storyteller and a skeptic. He also was an American Humanist minister and an atheist.

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.

In recent years, McCoy was best known for his Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. He ran the free, hands-on exhibit of medical-quackery devices at St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis for about 16 years until he retired in 2002, said his wife, Margaret Horrobin McCoy. His collection included a 1905 phrenology machine that is now on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

McCoy appeared on many TV talk shows, including Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and made at least four appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman."

In a November 1996 show, Letterman tried McCoy's phrenology machine. McCoy lowered a metal cage with probes contacting Letterman's head, prompting mock screams for help. The cage was attached to a machine whose inventor claimed it detects and prints out subject personality types, like "sexamity" and "suavity."

"You are a unique fella," McCoy read for Letterman. "You have trouble getting along with people, and you are too serious at times." That episode and other videotaped TV appearances can be seen on McCoy's website,

Margaret McCoy said that when her husband took the phrenology device on the "Tonight Show" in the 1970s, Carson stuck a pineapple in the cage and received a personality printout.

Bruce McCoy, of Los Angeles, worked in the quackery museum with his father. "He taught us his principles of being kind and not judging people based on their class or how they looked," he said. "He was a debater, and relished the challenge of getting someone to see his point of view. He never gave up talking as long as they wanted to talk."

His father believed "that nonsense was a dangerous thing," Bruce McCoy said. "We have to deal with the reality of the here and now. It didn't make sense to put your faith in imaginary things."

Bob Lundegaard, a longtime friend, said McCoy was a funny, low-key guy who cared about people, including women who felt compelled to resort to back-alley abortions when the procedure was illegal. "He tried to help them have safe and medically sound abortions," Lundegaard said. "That was very important to him."

In addition to his wife and son Bruce, McCoy is survived by another son, Doug, of Yuba City, Calif.; a daughter, Heather McCoy, of Hollidaysburg, Pa.; a sister, Carol Dharamsey of Larchmont, N.Y., and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 5th, at First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve, Minneapolis.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658