This blog was written by Alice Browne
Nowadays we are more likely to associate electricity with execution than with healing. But in nineteenth-century New York, sellers of electric belts and proprietors of electric baths promised relief from many diseases, especially those that were chronic, embarrassing, or neglected by conventional medicine. Both claimed to relieve symptoms by passing electric or magnetic currents through the patient’s body. They operated in the same uncertain area as the sellers of patent medicine, although a curiosity about the possible medical uses of electricity never quite disappeared in more respectable scientific circles.
Dr. James Bryan’s electric belts and harnesses, made in New York, offered relief from nervous prostration, hysteria, impotence, and uterine prolapse, as well as disorders of the kidneys, liver, lungs, spine and brain. His pamphlet is filled with testimonials, and illustrated with pictures of the doctor’s well-appointed offices and consulting rooms, as well as of the appliances on sale.
Electric baths, which passed an electric current through the the patient’s body, were also supposed to help many conditions, and were often advertised as part of the amenities at hotels and spas. These advertisements are sometimes misleading, as early tanning beds were also sometimes described as electric baths; the “electric baths” on the Titanic were of this kind, and did not involve water. However, Dr. Maurice Vergnes, proprietor of “electro-chemical baths” at 4 and 6 East 11th Street in 1867, gives a graphic if scientifically unpersuasive description of his methods, which leaves no doubt about how his treatment was supposed to work:
M. Vergnes takes an unfortunate patient corroded by lead, mercury, gold, silver, or any other metal, and places him in a metallic bathing-tub, insulated from the ground. The man sits down, his legs horizontally stretched out on a wooden bench, insulated from the tub, which is filled with water up to his neck. The water is slightly acidulated to increase its conductibility; and the acid varies according to cases. Nitric or hydrochloric acid is used for the extraction of mercury, silver or gold; other acids for that of lead. This done, the negative pole of the pile [i.e. battery] is brought into contact with the sides of the bathing-tub, and the positive pole placed in the hands of the patient.
The work of purification is now in full activity; the electrical current precipitates itself through the body of the sufferer, penetrating into the depth of his bones, pursues in all the tissues every particle of metal, seizes it, restores its primitive form, and chasing it out of the organism, deposits it on the sides of the tub, where it becomes apparent to the naked eye. [Vergnes’ electro-chemical baths, p. 8; Pamph RM885 .V47 1867)
Mercury was widely used as a treatment for syphilis, as well as many other conditions. Vergnes does not emphasize this in his leaflet, and gives case histories of children with lead poisoning, and people exposed to heavy metals for other reasons, but sufferers from syphilis were probably part of his expected market. His baths are listed in New York directories at a variety of locations throughout the 1870s, although later entries do not describe him as a doctor; the last directory entry for Vergnes describes him simply as “electrician”. The pamphlet describing his baths says that he developed his methods after working in the electro-plating industry. He also patented an inhaler for consumption.
The medical uses of electricity remained marginal in the nineteenth century, but never quite went away. Sometimes stereotyped as a fad treatment for hypochondriac women, the power of electricity remained intriguing. Perhaps without the fantasies that produced electric belts and electric baths it would have taken longer to evolve modern uses of electricity for the management of pain and treatment resistant depression.