Early 1900s Electricity in Surgery

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.

Illustrations of instruments for Galvanic cautery from Electro-Medical Instruments and their Management 1893

It was not long before high-frequency currents also found application in surgery in the form of light and heat. Instrument makers combined electrical illumination with optic devices making possible diagnosis of internal conditions. Julius Bruck's 'stomatoscope' was the first instrument to include light and Max Nitze's instruments could be passed through tubes thus facilitating actual treatment.

The observation by orthopaedist Charles Pravaz of the speed at which blood coagulates when electrified inspired Gustave Crussell to begin trailing electrolysis in cautery in 1839. In 1847, he successfully removed a tumour covering a patient's eye by manoeuvring behind it a red-hot wire. 

The bloodless operation left only a scab. Albrecht Middledorph developed various electric cutting apparatus suitable for surgery and by the 1870's 'galvano-cautery' was an accepted practice in the removal of skin blemishes such as warts, moles and superfluous hair. 

The true value of the heat based cutting current was realised by George Wyeth whose 'endothermic knife' overcame the problem of spreading cancerous cells with the scalpel.

Illustrations of Instruments for Galvanic Cautery from Electro-Medical Instruments and their Management 1893

Karl Nagelschmidt's 1906 prototype diathermy machine also utilised the heating effects of these currents, as did Willis Whitney who tested the pathological effect of artificial fever. While research director at General Electric Whitney noticed that employees working in high-frequency electric fields tended to feel ill, have raised temperatures and develop headaches at the end of the working day. 

Consequently, he began testing the pathological effect of producing artificial fevers using a condenser field. Its effects were to raise body temperature sufficiently to kill causative bacteria and to treat illness by triggering the body's own defence mechanisms. Initial treatments were D'Arsonval's autoconduction cage, the condenser couch or localised application of brush discharge. 

By 1930 this treatment was recognised as simply diathermy except at a higher frequency. As electro-magnetic waves continued to shorten their effects became increasingly powerful and by 1954 it was illegal to practise diathermy except in completely shielded rooms.

Next page → 1895 X-rays

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