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The Body Electric

L. Galvani. Aloysi Galvani Abhandlung über die Kräfte der thierischen Elektrizität, 1793

Luigi Galvani will always be associated with frogs’ legs contracting in response to a metallic conductor. Though he was mocked in some quarters as “the frogs’ dancing master,” Galvani established, irrefutably and for the first time, the existence of intrinsic animal electricity.

Galvani was trained as a physician, and always thought like one. Having demonstrated the presence of electricity in animals, he theorized that some illnesses might be the result of blockages in his newly-discovered “nervous-electric fluid.” And if electricity could cause disease, might it also be the cure? Galvani speculated on electricity’s potential as a therapy, but was tentative regarding the application of electricity in a medical setting.

G. Adams. An Essay on Electricity, 1799

Others were less prudent. Though no one could explain why it should work (or prove that it did), claims that electricity could cure everything from rheumatism to consumption were widespread long before Galvani had even begun his research. Electrical therapy seemed attractive not only because it was new and exciting, but also because it was cheap. In the 18th century, only the well-to-do could afford to buy most medicines. But a “medical electrician” with the right equipment could treat ten patients or a thousand for the same cost.

J. Wesley. The Desideratum, or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful (2nd ed.), 1871

John Wesley, an Englishman and a founder of the Methodist movement, offered electrical therapy in his charity dispensaries in the 1750s. He also extolled the virtues of “curative electricity” in his book The Desideratum, or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful. Wesley’s confidence in electric cures was unshakeable: “A Number of moderate Shocks daily repeated for some Time, effectually cures Coldness in the Feet. It does not fail.”

One hundred years after the initial publication of The Desideratum, the book was reissued. The cover of this second edition depicts a bolt of lightning opening a lock: electricity, in a word, is the key.

W. G. Johnson. Electro-therapie, the Art of Curing by Electricity, 1890

Electricity has come to play a legitimate role in medicine, and a huge one. The defibrillator, for example, is a ubiquitous reminder of the importance of electricity – including direct electrical stimulation – in modern medical practice. The Vail Collection includes numerous publications that trace the history of electrotherapeutics, early electrophysiology, and associated topics through 1910.

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