Galvanism and Medicine

Online exhibition looking at how electricity in a medical capacity has developed from the Antiquities through to the early twentieth century. Quack treatments are examined alongside studies of anatomy and x-rays.

Subsequent to the rather non-committal adoption of the term galvanism as a resolution to Galvani and Volta's animal electricity debate, the case in favour was strengthened by Fabroni, in 1792. 

He noted the oxidation of the metals and supposed that the excitation of both the muscles and the sense of taste to be a direct result of chemical activity. As a result, the idea that the current must be sought in the chemical changes taking place won favour.

From 1801 onward texts and treatment based on galvanism began to appear. The fact that contractions occurred in dead and living preparations suggested galvanism had application in the revival of persons asphyxiated or drowned.

Illustration from Elements of Galvanism by C H Wilkinson 1804

In 1804 Charles Wilkinson published his work  'The Elements of Galvanism'. The conditions treated, the methods and the results were representative of understanding for the next 30 years. Passing current through gold leaf placed on the skin and connected to a battery treated paralysis, cramp, tetanus and tumours. 

Contact was broken and re-made after each contraction for two 15-minute treatments per day. Passing current through the head was considered beneficial for nervous headaches and cases of mental derangement.

Whilst some of these ideas may seem somewhat far-fetched, others formed the basis of modern medical practices. With some refinement of technique, tetanus, tumours and paralysis are all still treated with electricity. Conversely, the absurdity of some quack treatments was unmistakable.

Next page → 1830s Electromagnetism

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