Electric Belts and Other Electrifying Health Aides

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.
photo (14)

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

photo (15)I spotted these electrical belts in the collections at House on the Rock.

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.

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Pioneering Women in American Medicine

“Every woman is born a doctor… [while] men have to study to become one,” declared American educatorElla Flagg Young in the mid-19th century. Looking around much of the country, it certainly must have seemed that way.

Long before marketers invented “Dr. Mom,” women had served as nurse, doctor, and pharmacist to their family and friends. Doctoring a family required a great deal of knowledge and skill, which often passed down, woman to woman, through families for generations. Even so, mainstream medicine generally barred women from pursuing medical careers until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Those women that did see doctors rarely received adequate treatment. Many doctors refused to physically examine women for fear of offending their modesty. Others dismissed women’s illnesses, contending that reproduction made women irrational and emotional. As a result, women often found themselves suffering from a dangerous or inappropriate remedy—or no treatment at all—without the benefit of a thorough analysis.

Despite these limitations—or maybe because of them—many women did break through the discrimination and gender assumptions to pursue a career in health, particularly women’s health. Alternative medicine, then known as irregular medicine, welcomed women as both patients and practitioners. The first generation of female doctors practiced homeopathy, water cure, phrenology, and osteopathy, among other therapies. Medicine was second only to teaching in attracting professional women in the 19th century.

Here a few of those pioneering women you should know:

 

 Mary Gove Nichols, The Library Company

In the 1830s, Mary Gove Nichols made a name for herself lecturing and teaching on the shocking topics of women’s health. She championed the benefits of cold water, fresh air, vegetarianism, and regular exercise. She urged women to take charge of their own health as much as possible and lauded women as natural caregivers with their inherent thoughtfulness and gentler dispositions. Nichols never attended medical school (the same could be said of most 19th century doctors, male or female, regular or irregular) but became a trusted healing expert through her popular lectures, publications, and medical practice.

 

Lydia Folger, National Library of Medicine

 

 

Lydia Folger became the first American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States (Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England). Graduating in 1850, Folger hit another first by becoming the nation’s first female professor of medicine at Central Medical College in New York. She practiced phrenology, the science of reading character on the skull, anatomy, and hygiene. Her medical practice in New York City specialized on the health of women and children.

 

Harriet Judd Sartain, Drexel University College of Medicine

  

Harriet Judd Sartain operated one of the most successful medical practices in 1850s Philadelphia. Sartain practiced homeopathy and used her powerful position in her community to fight for women’s right to practice medicine. She lobbied for coeducation and formed a medical club for women. Sartain became a national figure in 1871 when she became one of the first women to join the American Institute of Homeopathy, the field’s national professional association.

 

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Wikipedia

 

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Elizabeth Cady Stanton weren’t doctors but few championed the cause of women more vocally. In 1867, the 23-year-old Phelps decried the misery of the American woman burdened with housework or leisured idleness. She suggested a range of jobs for women to pursue but saved her highest praise for medicine as the most “noble” career. Phelps advocated for women in medicine repeatedly in essays, letters, and novels. Her enthusiasm for homeopathy was so great that she even named her dog after the field’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann.

 

 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Library of Congress

Stanton, too, saw freedom and purpose for women in medicine. After witnessing her brother-in-law’s recovery from heat disease under the care of a homeopath, Stanton purchased her own homeopathy kit and began doctoring her family and friends. “I have seen wonders in Homeopathy,” she reported to her cousin, and “I intend to commence life on Homeopathic principles.” She nursed her children through malaria, mumps, and whooping cough. She even treated herself during childbirth in 1852. Homeopathy felt like nothing less than liberation for Stanton. “Dear me, how much cruel bondage of mind and suffering of body poor women will escape,” wrote Stanton to her friend Lucretia Mott, “when she takes the liberty of being her own physician of both body and soul.” 

 

 

An Illustrated History of Alternative Medicine in Early America

Sickness was a major part of early American life. Many people suffered from poor health their whole lives.

But scientifically valid medical knowledge was limited. The world in 1820 was not a much more comfortable place to fall ill than it had been two hundred years earlier. No one knew about germs or the significance of human contact or insects in spreading disease.

Medical theory of the time held that sickness resulted from a body out of balance. It was an idea that went back hundreds of years to Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century. To restore balance, mainstream doctors bled, blistered, and sweated patients to large and often painful degrees. They administered large doses of drugs like calomel, a form of mercury, to purge patients. Doctors chose treatments that caused quick and drastic changes in a patient’s condition, which could be interpreted as progress. Though well-intentioned, these mainstream treatments also caused as much, if not more, pain than the sickness itself. As a result, doctors could rarely offer sick Americans a medical means of getting better.

But as industrialization, urbanization, and new technologies remade everything from where people worked to how they lived and got around in the 19th century, many Americans began to question why medical care didn’t seem to be improving, too. Anyone who could offer a remedy that seemed effective, didn’t hurt as much as bleeding, cost less than a trip to a doctor, and even allowed you to treat yourself was bound to be popular. (Even a cursory study of the past reveals that Americans have been staunchly independent and looking for deals for centuries.)

And so, phrenologists read character on the topography of people’s skulls, hydropaths attempted to wash out all disease with cold water, and mesmerists transmitted an invisible fluid known as animal magnetism. And millions of Americans became devotees.

But why would anyone believe these things could work?

Burns Archive

Burns Archive

Read the rest on The Beacon Broadside.