Electromagnetic Quackery and Bizarre Medical Devices


Edward Nairne and his electrical machine, 1783. Nairne’s machine was an electrostatic device intended for the cure of various ailments and disorders through the use of electric shock.
A practitioner of Mesmerism
D.C. Moorhead’s graduated magnetic machine, advertised in the Gazette of the Union in 1848, purported to cure, among other ailments, rheumatism, gout, headaches, paralysis, epilepsy, dyspepsia, and act as a preventive for apoplexy.
1882 advertisement for George A. Scott’s electric corset
Taking an electric bath, circa 1870s

This article was initially published in the November 2015 issue of IEEE-USA InSight

The electrical revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries sparked one of the most profound shifts in human culture. Among other things, usage of electricity opened new doors for communication, transportation, information processing, and automation. It completely transformed society and gave humanity new tools to understand the world and ourselves. Electrical technologies also revolutionized the medical industry. An inadvertent side effect of this transformation was the creation of an industry of pseudoscience involving bizarre electromagnetic devices that purported to cure nearly every disease and ailment.

With the invention of the Leyden jar in the mid-1740s, electrostatic devices were frequently constructed for various novelty purposes. It was around this time when medical electrostatic devices arose. Using charges of static electricity to deliver shocks to a patient, medical electricity was used to treat various ailments from tumors, ulcers, gout, fevers, and headaches.

Legitimate understanding of the relationship between the human body and electricity began to develop in the late 18th century. Luigi Galvani conducted a number of experiments using frogs and scientifically demonstrated a relationship between biology and electricity. It took several more decades for the mathematical laws of electromagnetism to be fully described, and several more decades beyond that before practical and legitimate uses for electricity in medicine were implemented. However, the lack of a clear understanding of electromagnetic theory throughout the 19th century did not stop creative entrepreneurs from developing devices that purported to cure medical ailments.

In addition to electroshock, one of the earliest methods to gain significant traction with the public was the theory of animal magnetism, or Mesmerism, developed by German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer. In 1774, Mesmer claimed to cure Francisca Österlin by using a series of magnets in conjunction with a fluid containing iron that was ingested by the patient. Mesmer believed that an external stimulus of magnetism triggered what he believed was the body’s own magnetic fluid, initiating its natural healing effects. Mesmer lectured publically on the treatments over the next few years and while he left Vienna in scandal after failing to cure a woman of blindness, his treatments and methods became incredibly popular and spawned an industry of professional magnetizers. Charles Dickens learned some of the basic techniques and used it to treat some of his friends. Mesmerism even influenced the English language, lending the word “mesmerize” to its lexicon.

Legitimate advances through the middle of the 19th century in electromagnetic theory by Faraday and Maxwell led to a greater understanding of how electricity and magnetism work. With greater understanding of electricity, devices which operated on the properties and language of magnetism and galvanism became less common as electrotherapy gained popularity. Some inventors, like prolific manufacturer George A. Scott, continued to use magnetic devices, but preferred the term “electric” in the marketing materials. Scott patented numerous devices, including electric insoles, an electric corset, and an electric hairbrush which claimed it grew hair on a man “whose head was as bald as a bladder of lard.”

Electric baths gained popularity in France in the 1870s, where a low current was administered to the patient while in a bathtub, purporting to help rheumatism, and electric belts were frequently sold, aimed at men’s sexual health. Electrotherapy treatments like these were so popular that in 1887 the US Congress had a device attached to the Capitol Building’s electrical system, allowing congressmen to easily receive treatments during congressional sessions.

Skepticism around the claims made by electromagnetic therapies has always been present. In 1784, King Louis XVI of France commissioned members of the Faculty of Medicine to investigate the claims made by Mesmer and other professional magnetizers. This investigation determined that there was no evidence for a physical magnetic fluid that and that any purported cures came from a placebo. Knowledge of medical practices in the late 18th and 19th centuries can be paralleled to the contemporary understanding of electricity in that both areas were still in their early developmental phases. The medical and electrical industries both made rapid advancements in the latter half of the 19th century, causing electrotherapy and animal magnetism to fall out of favor with legitimate medical and electrical engineering organizations.

Formal attempts to control ethical breaches within the electrical engineering community date back to the early 1900s. A code of ethics was proposed to the AIEE in 1907 by Charles Steinmetz, Harold Buck, and Schuyler Skaats Wheeler, of which one of the clauses states that “[the electrical engineer should]… discourage wrong or exaggerated statements on engineering subjects published in the press or otherwise, especially if these statements are made for the purpose of, or may lead to inducing the public to participate in unworthy schemes.” This code of ethics was adopted by the AIEE in 1912, and in the same year, the American Medical Association published a multivolume compilation, a collection of articles on various kinds of quackery, including electrotherapy. Despite these pushes from both the electrical and medical professions, electrotherapy treatments did not fall out of favor with the public until the 1930s. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which mandated the review of new drugs and banned false therapeutic claims in drugs, and in 1976 it was expanded to include the oversight of medical devices.

Many of these devices and treatments may seem ridiculous today. Though taking an electric bath or drinking a radium cocktail might be unthinkable to the modern reader, quackery manages to survive in various forms. Despite our advanced understanding of biology, medicine, and electromagnetism, and explicitly defined government regulation of medical devices and drugs, modern pseudoscience movements are able to thrive because of distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and popularization of the internet. Some of these have adversely impacted the efficiency of public health programs, introducing epidemic outbreaks of easily preventable disease like whooping cough and measles. In a twist of irony, it is unlikely that pseudoscientific cures will ever be extinct despite the fact that we live in an age of great scientific and medical literacy, where a vast wealth of legitimate information can be accessed by anyone.