Electrifying Medicine Pt. 1 – Stingrays and Storms

Onxyfeld, Late Winter 1872

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You bring them into this world, and the next thing you know, they’re sleeping off a 12 hour bender in the closet.

Many of you are familiar with the lamentably popular 1818 piece of pulp named Frankenstein. Unknown to most, what it actually chronicles is how at the turn of the 18th century, one of my creations went missing and for reasons best known to itself, wandered off into the Arctic tundra (not the smartest one of the batch). Mary Shelley was the snooping journalist who came across the beast in England and rather than do the responsible thing and report it directly to me, she wrote a story about it. Her confused editor, believing it was fiction, passed it off as such. Frankly I don’t give a jot whether people believe the story or not. What concerns me most is that, upon his departure, the giant lout went and absconded with a large quantity of my fine silver dinnerware, a detail left out of Shelley’s account. Ungrateful creature. I give it life, and it nicks my cutlery. Quite improper.

Most of what Shelley wrote is hogwash and flam, but sections contain trace elements of the truth of my work, namely the reference to electro-chemical stimulation of organic flesh, biologically inert or not, as it relates to reanimation of the dead. The phenomenon of electricity and it’s supposedly endless social applications continues to capture the imagination of the gullible masses, but the true benefits lie firmly in the medical fields. Crackpots and so called ‘futurists’ speak of a time when electrical motors will be powerful enough to move trains! When we will have automatic computing machines! Rocket ships to the moon! Preposterous and impossible.1

Other than telegrams and light bulbs, electricity clearly has limited benefit in fields other than physiological medicine. Yet, how did we come to find out about about the curious properties of the mysterious energy known as electricity? How can we use it to manipulate and control- that is, I mean, heal and rejuvenate the human body? These questions and more will be answered in the following essays. It’s dry stuff, let me tell you. I suggest you pour another brandy and get comfortable.

Use of electricity as a therapeutic method dates back as far as ancient Egyptian times. Before they were wasting their time erecting pyramids or building tombs, the Egyptians were utilizing a remarkably rational process of diagnosis, one of the results of which was the therapeutic application of the Torpedo fish genus (torpedo derives from the Latin meaning ‘numbness, sluggishness), better known as the electric eel or stingray. These electrongenic fish can deliver powerful shocks which result in temporary pain relief. The fish were (carefully) removed from the Nile and placed on the parts of the body from where the pain seemed to emanate the most.

That said, more accurately, it would result in an extremely sharp initial amount of pain, and then gradually less pain afterwards, when the body had ceased to respond to stimuli and had become completely numb. Let it not be said that the hearts of ancient physicians were not in the right place, because their procedures left a great deal to be desired.

The great Roman physician Scribonious Largus was recognized as having the temerity to suggest such a treatment for the Emperor Claudius in 47 AD:

“…For any sort of foot gout, when the pain comes on it is good to put a living black torpedo fish under his feet while standing on the beach, not dry but one on which the sea washes, until he feels that his whole foot and ankle are numb up to the knees.”

Goodness. I’m sure we are all grateful for our modern and advanced pain relief methods, such as shots of cocaine or lobotomy. Scribonious recommended the electrical fish-based discharge treatment for everything from gout to headaches, and given that extended exposure numbed Emperor Claudius to the knees, one can only guess the effect of placing it on ones forehead. I’ll take the ‘gin and a heated washcloth’ treatment instead, thank you all the same.

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“Hey Dad? Didn’t mom say we-“
“Quiet son, your mother doesn’t know everything. Now hold this.”

Little changed in terms of the medical application of electricity for over a thousand years. It wasn’t until the invention of the Leyden jar, a device used to store a limited electrical charge, that the first modern consideration of electro-therapy came to be known. It was most notably used by in 1750’s-1760’s by Benjamin Franklin in the therapy of pain and paralysis and improved by placing multiple Leyden jars in a parallel circuit to allow for a greater charge to be utilized (the stacking term ‘battery’ was coined by Franklin due to its similarity with brigades of cannon in theaters of war).

His therapies were popular. Not to immediately throw the intelligence of American colonials under the proverbial carriage, but one must question the wisdom of attending medical practice with a man who thought it wise to fly a kite in a thunderstorm. Nevertheless, they flocked to him in large numbers to undergo his treatments. His methods to cure pain and paralysis involved applying the generated charge of large Leyden jars to affected parts of the patient, often several times a day.

Surprisingly, it worked, albeit temporarily. Franklin states:

“The patients… finding the shocks pretty severe, they became discourag’d, went home and in a short time relapsed; so that I never knew any advantage from electricity in palsies that was permanent.”

Next week we will be studying Luigi Galvani‘s contributions to modern science by dismembering large quantities of frogs and zapping them.


This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on February 15th 2015.

1. (1889 revision: The first electric motor capable of powering a vehicle was produced in 1886. Doctor Pembroke would like to make it very clear that he does not acknowledge his erroneous prediction as to the efficacy of electricity as a mistake. Men of his caliber do not make mistakes. It was the fault of his research intern, the liver and heart of whom are now in jars).

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