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Mad Cures: Sore Throats and Currents July 10, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

C. 1900 you have a nasty sore throat that won’t go away. A friend tells you that there is a new treatment in town for only three dollars, five if you stay at home and the practitioner comes to your house with ‘the machine’. And what exactly does this  ‘new’ treatment entail, you ask innocently? Well, first you need to relax.

Let the operating room be pleasantly warm ; the patient, if a lady, should remove her outer garments, corsets, and all compressive bands, strings, &c. Gentlemen should do the same to the extent necessary.

At this point a series of metal plates are placed strategically across the body: locations depending on the type of malady. These are held in place by towels. Comfort is everything. And the room is kept warm to avoid drafts that may lead to colds. Then the treatment proper begins and electric currents are passed through the plates, giving small shocks to the relevant part of the body. For example, with a sore throat:

Small plate at back of neck, and the sponge-cup rubbed gently over the front of the throat, from six to ten minutes. In case of ulceration, swelled tonsils, &c., the operator may use the spatula (if possessed of instruments), and apply it, covered with a finecloth, so as gently to touch the swellings for a minute or two at a time. In Diptheria, Bronchites, or Hoarseness, the sponge-cup rubbed over the front of the throat, or an application of electricity through the operator’s hand, can be repeated several times a day during from five to ten minutes at a time.

To the best of Beach’s knowledge electricity has two applications in modern medicine. First, electroconvulsive treatment is used in cases of severe depression: memories of nightmare scenes in The Bell Jar. Then, second, it is employed by neurologists to test nerve reactions: though this is a way of measuring rather than curing problems.

Yet in the late nineteenth-century electricity became a medicine for every woe: we see here that pattern where by ‘the new’ is simultaneously praised as a magic bullet and damned as a deadly danger. Interestingly the author of the passages italicised above was the always interesting Emma Hardinge Britten, a spiritualist with a reputation for eloquence and honesty (not something very common in that field). In her book on the subject there are clear traces of spiritualist thinking: electricity is a fluid connected to the living principle… etc etc.

Any other curious nineteenth-century treatments: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


11/7/2012: First up is KMH: Electrotherapy  seems to help with healing wounds and  muscle atrophy according to wikipedia. There is much room for further development and improvement in its application. Loes writes: After reading your latest electricity cure and mentioning Emma Hardinge Britten, who was indeed a remarkable woman and medium who left us so much history of early Spiritualism, (one always wonders how some people in the 19th Century managed to write so much without a computer, do so much research and live a busy life besides), I was reminded of the electrical cures of Carl Wickland and his wife, described in ‘Thirty Years among the Dead’. Wickland drove out the invading spirit from a patient with an electrical device, making ‘it’ move to his wife, who was a medium, after which procedure he tried talking to the spirit, to convince it that it was dead and could have more fun somewhere else. This principle is applied in Brazil and in Germany, by Dagobert Göbel and his ( also a medium) Brazilian wife Fernanda Marinho, with good results, using the passes Mesmer used, which is (kind of) electric too. www.alkastar.de I can’t help thinking that maybe the at times good results of electroshock therapy in psychiatry is due to the same principle. Which means that some psychiatric illnesses would be spiritual rather than physical or psychological, a principle that Kardec’s Spiritism in Brazil uses in their many health facilities. Invisible has a couple of great museum links here: Quackery and Roadside. Thanks KMH, Loes and Invisible!

16/July 2012: Jim contributed this ‘Apparently, discovered because of a severe personal problem, live bone exhibits piezoelectric phenomena.  That is, mechanical stress applied to the material produces an electrical potential/current. This is a commonly used phenomenon in piezoelectic acoustic speakers, like in your cellphone.  The acoustic side is exhibited by varying electric potentials making the solid material change dimensions.  The reverse is true:  solid material dimensional changes generate electrical potentials, e. g., the transducers in modern weight scales or the microphones in your cellphone.  The orthopedic surgeon explained that a properly applied electrical current/potential across a fractured bone will stimulate that bone to regenerate and heal faster.  That was cool to a rock mechanic/geologic instrumentation guy.’ Thanks Jim

30 July 2012: Andy the Mad Monk writes in with this link for electricity and hay fever! Thanks Andy