Even better, I quickly found an authentic instruction manual for this classic example of early quackery on-line. Published in four languages, the manual explains the proper care and usage of the machine as well as more testimonials to its effectiveness. The long list of diseases "in which Magneto-Electricity may be applied with Beneficial Results or Certainty of Cure" include: asphyxia, apoplexy (stroke), asthma, angina, the medical problems resulting from abortion, impotence, constipation, heart and liver disease, "critical periods or turn of life in females", consumption, diabetes, "genital debility", delirium tremens, and too many other diseases to list here.
Electricity had been little more than a curiosity prior to the 18th century but enthusiastic researchers including Benjamin Franklin, Otto von Guericke, and Stephen Grey had published radical new findings that opened up exciting new possibilities for its use in medicine and biology. During the "first age of electricity" from 1740 to 1800 as basic research led to a better scientific understanding of the principles underlying electrical phenomena and, through the invention of the Leyden Jar and lightning rods, public acceptance of electricity grew as well. Adventurous people even took part in "phosphene parties" involving groups of people joining hands in a circle and touching a high-voltage generator. As one contemporary account put it, "Somehow, the completion or breaking of this people-circuit created an electrical stimulus to their brains that unleashed colorful light shows". Even Benjamin Franklin took part.
Given that electrical devices were seen as "cutting edge" technology, was it any wonder that the notion of electricity having medical benefits became popular as well? One early physician, Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein pioneered medical uses of electricity in the 18th century and published research demonstrating the effect of electricity on blood circulation and muscle contraction (he also may have been the inspiration for the title character in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). As an alternative to the bloodletting, enemas and mercury compounds that were commonly prescribed by doctors of the time, the use of electrical shock to treat disease was eagerly pursued by alternative medical practitioners (who often weren't medical doctors at all). By the beginning of the 19th century, there was a dedicated community of "electrotherapists" dedicated to exploring electricity in treating disease. They came from all walks of life including physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, ministers, gentleman farmers, etc. While some were legitimate scientists who engaged in actual research, others were obvious quacks.As early reports of "miracle cures" became widespread, patients eagerly sought out these electrotherapists hoping for better treatment than what was available from the conventional physicians of that time. Even actual researchers were besieged with requests from desperate patients who wanted to try out their electric generators (Benjamin Franklin treated several paralytics at his Philadelphia home).
In addition to paralysis, electrotherapists offered treatment for a range of other diseases including rheumatism, epilepsy, hysteria, pain, deafness, and blindness. While actual empirical evidence was lacking, testimonials from grateful patients were enough to attract more business. Electrotherapists across Europe and North America developed standardized treatment procedures for dealing with different diseases such as the use of "electric baths" to treatment hysteria and "melancholy" (depression). These electric baths typically involved having a patient hold a metal wire connected to the generator while the patient sat on an insulating stool. The treatments often lasted for hours and left the patients sweating. Since there was little actual current flowing,any benefit was purely psychosomatic. Still, the use of electric baths and other forms of "electric furniture" was extremely popular among well-to-do patients who could afford the treatments (and yes, electrotherapists made house calls). Some manufactures even sold electric machines for home use so patients could self-medicate as needed (those patients who couldn't afford to buy the machines outright could rent them by the week- a hefty deposit was required).
While never as famous as Franz Anton Mesmer and his "animal magnetism" movement, electrotherapy quickly developed its own high priests as well. We'll get to one of them in the next post.