Electricity has long been a popular healer. In the 18th century, upper class people in the United States and Europe attended dramatic electrical performances as entertainment. The therapeutic uses of electricity were not just for the elite, however, extending all the way down to the lower classes.
Ancient Romans knew of the healing power of electricity. They prescribed the application of black torpedo fish, a kind of electric ray, to numb pain. Scribonius Largus, Emperor Claudius’ physician, was a staunch advocate of the remedy: “To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain, until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.”
The discovery of the Leyden jar – a way of storing up static electricity – in the 18th century allowed shocks to be delivered in a more forceful way. Soon after, Italian physician and scientist Luigi Galvani’s experiments activating the nerves in the legs of a dead frog seemed to suggest that electricity and life were intimately connected. If electricity restored life, suddenly, toothaches, back pain, headaches – just about any ailment seemed like it could be cured by the application of electricity. It ignited an electrical healing craze.
Mary Shelley used this belief in electricity to her advantage in 1817, giving birth to Frankenstein.
Electrotherapies were common in the 19th century. All sorts of electric devices – electric baths, electric belts, electric vests, electric soap, even electric hair brushes – could be purchased along with wild claims to health improvement.
Electric belts were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ads featured all manner of testimonials from satisfied customers. You didn’t even have to seek a specialist to get one – they could be purchased from the Sears catalog. The Reinhardt brothers of Milwaukee were big proponents of electrical healing, selling their devices as cures for every kind of sexual dysfunction imaginable.
Of course, electrical therapy still exists to this day. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS, for instance, uses a low-voltage electrical current for pain relief, not unlike the torpedo fish of Roman times. Electricity may not be a cure-all but it’s definitely still with us.