Category Archives: History

Benjamin Franklin, Electrotherapist

Living in Philadelphia, the legacy of Benjamin Franklin is omnipresent. It was particularly noticeable on my recent trip to the Mütter Museum, a fantastic collection of medical specimens that has been around for over a hundred years.

On one pedestal, I discovered a Van de Graaff generator that belonged to Franklin. The idea of curing diseases with electricity had been around since Roman doctors utilized electric rays, but it was especially in vogue during the late 18th century. Doctors were reporting that electricity could revive paralyzed limbs. Skeptical of these claims, Franklin took it upon himself to test the new technique.

The journal Neurology has a fascinating article on Franklin’s experiments and includes this helpful illustration:

medical electricity 2

The main drum was rotated to generate an electric potential, which was subsequently stored in a primitive capacitor called a Leyden Jar. The stored charge was then administered to the affected limbs using two electrodes.

The article also includes some of Franklin’s writings on the subject:

The first Thing observ’d was an immediate greater sensible Warmth in the lame Limbs that had receiv’d the Stroke than in the others; and the next Morning the Patients usually related that they had in the Night felt a prickling Sensation in the Flesh of the paralytic Limbs, and would sometimes shew a Number of small red Spots which they suppos’d were occasion’d by those Pricklings: The Limbs too were found more capable of voluntary Motion, and seem’d to receive Strength; A Man, for Instance, who could not, the first day, lift the lame Hand from off his Knee, would the next day raise it four or five Inches, the third Day higher, and on the fifth Day was able, but with a feeble languid Motion, to take off his Hat.

However, Franklin remained skeptical of the new technique:

These Appearances gave great Spirits to the Patients, and made them hope a perfect Cure; but I do not remember that I ever saw any Amendment after the fifth day: Which the Patients perceiving, and finding the Shocks pretty severe, they became discourag’d, went home and in short time relapsed; so that I never knew any Advantage from Electricity in Palsies that was permanent.

The article describes two high profile cases that Franklin took on: James Logan, a prominent Quaker who served as Governor of Pennsylvania and Jonathan Belcher, a learned man who served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New Hampshire and finally New Jersey. Neither of these men recovered after Franklin’s shock treatment.

Eventually Franklin decided that electrotherapy held little merit and discouraged other patients from seeking the treatment. He attributed some of the positive effects of electricity to the placebo effect. Franklin exemplified the principles of the Enlightenment in his willingness to abandon ideas that failed empirical confirmation.

Though lacking formal training, Franklin took on many other medical projects. For instance, King Louis XVI appointed Franklin to a committee that investigated Franz Mesmer and his theories of animal magnetism. Franklin was instrumental in discrediting Mesmer’s therapy, and Thomas Jefferson would later write that “[A]nimal magnetism … received its death-wound from [Franklin’s] hand … ”

Franklin, whose son died from smallpox, was also a fervent advocate of inoculation. This technique significantly reduced fatalities from the disease.

Ever the innovator, Franklin also invented bifocals and a flexible catheter for his brother John, who suffered from bladder stones. Both devices are on display at the Mütter Museum in addition to his electrical equipment.