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Electrotherapy





The great development of pseudo-science in medicine remained for the
era following the scientific investigation of electricity. With the
discovery of the Leyden jar and its startling spark, a new and
marvelous healing agent seemed to be at hand. It is quite amusing to
read the accounts of the influence of the spark of the Leyden jar on
the well and on the ailing. In my "Catholic Churchmen in Science"
(Dolphin Press, Phila., 1909) I summed up the situation.

Winckler of Leipzig said that the first time he tried the jar, he
found great convulsions by it in his body; it put his blood into
great agitation; he was afraid of an ardent fever, and was obliged
to use refrigerating medicines. He felt a heaviness in his head as
if a stone lay upon it. Twice it gave him a bleeding at the nose.
After the second shock his wife could scarcely walk, and, though a
week later, her curiosity stronger than her fears, she tried it once
more, it caused her to bleed at the nose after taking it only once.
Many men were terrified by it, and even serious professors describe
entirely imaginary symptoms. The jar was taken around Europe for
exhibition purposes, and did more to awaken popular interest than
all the publications of the learned with regard to electricity, in
all the preceding centuries.

The extent to which the curative power of electric sparks from the
Leyden jar was supposed to go is best appreciated from a list of the
affections that one distinguished electro-therapeutist claimed could
be not only benefited, but absolutely cured by its employment. It
included pulmonic fever, under which title practically all the more or
less acute diseases of the chest were included, and some at least of
the sub acute; dropsy, by which was meant every effusion into the
abdominal cavity no matter what its cause; dysentery, under which was
included at that time not only the specific dysenteries but many of
the summer complaints and some typhoid fevers; diarrhea, including all
the intestinal diseases not already grouped under dysentery; putrid
and bilious fever, under which category were assembled the worst cases
of typhoid; typhus fever, and all the other continued fevers, and
any febrile condition reasonably severe for which no other term could
be used; epidemic diseases, pest, anthrax, small-pox, cancer, gravel,
diseases of the bladder and of the brain and spinal cord. The Leyden
jar had no real effect on any of these affections, but doubtless the
mental effect of this new remedy was quite sufficient to be of
distinct therapeutic value in the milder forms of many of them.

With Galvani's discovery of the twitching of the muscles of the frog
there came a new impetus to the exploitation of electricity in
medicine. Many felt that now it was beyond doubt that electrical
energy bore some definite relation to vital energy--that one might be
made to replace the other if indeed they were not more or less the
same thing. This led to many applications of electricity in medicine.
Students of physiology were convinced that they were getting close to
the solution of the mystery of life, and their persuasion was readily
carried over to the people of the time, so that electricity literally
worked wonders on them.

When the various electrical machines were invented and their use
popularized, pseudo-science proceeded to exploit them, and succeeded,
because the mechanical shock of the electric current proved a
suggestive therapeutic stimulant. Gordon in the eighteenth century
made the first practical frictional electrical machine, and soon some
men were observing wonderful effects with it, though the charge was so
small that it could actually accomplish little. Just after the
invention of the voltaic pile in 1800 it came to be used in medicine
with wonderful results. We are prone to think that electrotherapy is
modern, but when electrical machines were quite crude, current
strength small and potential low, old-time electro-therapeutists were
recording their wonderful results and were getting just as marvelous
effects as are reported now by enthusiasts. Considerable
electro-medical literature existed a century ago when next to nothing
was known of electricity. When, later, high potency currents came in
and the Wimshurst and other powerful machines were invented, there was
revealed at each novel invention a new horizon in electro-therapy and
wondrous cures were reported. These continue to occur in the practice
of a few favored individuals, though the general profession secures
only some ordinary mechanico-muscular effects, which demand much time
for real good to be accomplished and have nothing at all of the
marvelous about them.

The power of the pseudo-scientific aspect of electricity to influence
patients, far from being lost in our time, has rather been increased.
Our newspapers make their readers eminently suggestible because they
constantly furnish suggestions, and nothing so strengthens a function
of any kind as exercise of it. All sorts of electrical contrivances
and apparatuses are advertised to cure various pains and aches. Many
of them actually seem to relieve long-standing discomfort, though it
is not through any electrical power that they do so, but entirely
through their influence on the patient's mind. A museum of the
electrical contrivances of various kinds for which absurdly high
prices are paid at the present time and which people recommend to
others because of having been benefited by them would be interesting.
There are belts of many kinds, and rings, and medallions, and plates
to be worn on the back and on the chest, and curiously shaped poles or
"polar plates" resembling various organs, and pendants and armlets and
anklets and insoles of many, many kinds, usually going in pairs,
one made in zinc and the other in copper, and worth exactly as much as
the weight of copper and zinc in them, yet curing chronic ailments by
suggestion, or at least bringing relief from many pains and aches
complained of.





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