Before Volta and Tesla, before Hertz and Edison and Westinghouse, electricity was the purview of medicine. Before it was understood to be an electromagnetic interaction between poles and one of the four fundamental forces of physics, it was imagined as a strange fluid that flowed from place to place with a little prodding and the right materials. Indeed, electricity has always enjoyed something of a privileged place around the scholarly campfires in the history of science, as it no doubt does in the popular narrative of history. It has served in the former mostly as a locus for inquiry into the epistemology and philosophy of science, with scholarly work looking to seventeenth and eighteenth century activities into this phenomenon in the larger schema of contemporary scientific discourses and debates.
But the uses of electricity were not confined to laboratories where scientists tried to unearth the properties of this strange force of nature. Medical uses of electricity go at least as far back as the first decades of the 1700s in France, though by the 1750s as a therapeutic it had largely fallen into disfavor. Francois Zanetti’s excellent recent article “Curing with Machines,” published in Technology and Culture, reminds us that we must sometimes look into the fine structure of history to discover how the marketplace of medical ideas—and the machines they increasingly used—played out on the microcosmic scale.
The first decades of medical electricity were dominated by traveling doctors and then, eventually, by an arrangement which saw individuals in need of such treatment (it was marketed for everything, but the focus seems to have been on neurological disorders like epilepsy). Patients would trek to the doctor’s house for treatment according to the schedule set.
From the 1770s onward, electricity would be part of the materia medica, or the set of procedures and body of knowledge that constituted medical practice. During this time, physicians and surgeons, playing tug of war with the corpus of medical knowledge and technical procedures in curing the human body (called the armamentarium) as well as the authority and respect the latter conferred upon practitioners, each attempted to appropriate this “electrical fluid” in their quest for supremacy. Physicians argued electrical cures were the logical application of their theories. Surgeons averred instead cures were the result of their tactile expertise. Eventually, physicians would win.
The great thing here is that Zanetti reminds us no therapeutic practice, especially novel ones, exist independent of either economic or social marketplaces. Patients, like those who installed their own electrical machines from the craftsmen who made them for physicians, engaged in a give and take that sculpted not only the theories of these machines but also their physical shape. Medical practitioners saw these challenges from the laity and, together, this is what came to shape the medical use of electricity just around the time unruly colonials in Boston and elsewhere were getting in a tizzy about finally being asked to pay taxes.