Therapeutic Attractions: Early Applications of Electricity to the Art of Healing

  • Paola Bertucci

In the past few decades a number of studies dealing with eighteenth-century natural philosophy in England have pointed out its inextricable links with spectacle and public display. The commodification of cultural products, which was one of the main features of the Enlightenment, extended to science and scientific instruments, textbooks, and demonstrations, as well as to medicine. Pivotal works by Roy Porter have indelibly portrayed the vibrant marketplace in which medical practitioners operated. Even when they had a formal degree, “regular” healers had to compete both with “irregulars” and with a widespread culture of self-treatment (Porter, 1985, 1990, 1995; Porter & Porter, 1989; Schaffer, 1983; Stewart, 1992). In such competitive arena recently invented therapies attracted the attention of both patients and practitioners. From the 1740s onward, “medical electricity” was among the most attractive ones. The term indicated the applications of electric shocks and sparks to the treatment of various diseases, in particular palsies and “nerve disorders.”

Electrical healing was first presented to the eighteenth-century public as a branch of experimental philosophy (Bertucci, 2001a). This essay analyzes the early diffusion of medical electricity, setting it in the context of the experimental culture from which it emerged. I deal with a relatively short span of time – the few decades during which almost instantaneously medical electricity came to be practiced in different European states – and I highlight the role played by itinerant demonstrators and instrument-makers in spreading what would soon become a fashionable, though controversial, healing practice.


Electric Shock Electrical Machine Early Application Electrical Treatment Experimental Philosophy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. An historical account of the wonderful discoveries made in Germany &c. concerning electricity. (1745). Gentleman’s Magazine, 15, 193–197.Google Scholar
  2. Benguigui, I. (1984). Théories électriques du XVIIIe siècle. Correspondence entre l’abbé Nollet (1700–1770) et le physicien genevois Jean Jallabert (1712–1768). Genève: Georg.Google Scholar
  3. Bianchini, G. (1749). Saggio d’esperienze intorno alla Medicina Elettrica. Venezia: Pasquali.Google Scholar
  4. Bertucci, P. (2001a). A philosophical business: Edward Nairne and the patent medical electrical machine (1782). History of Technology, 23, 41–58.Google Scholar
  5. Bertucci, P. (2001b). The electrical body of knowledge: Medical electricity and experimental philosophy in the mid-eighteenth century. In P. Bertucci & G. Pancaldi 2001 (pp. 43–68).Google Scholar
  6. Bertucci, P. (2005). Sparking controversy: Jean Antoine Nollet and medical electricity south of the Alps. Nuncius, 20, 153–187.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Bertucci, P. (2006). Revealing sparks. John Wesley and the religious utility of electrical healing. British Journal for the History of Science, 39, 341–362.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bertucci, P., & Pancaldi, G. (Eds.). (2001). Electric bodies. Episodes in the history of medical electricity. Bologna Studies in the History of Science. Bologna: CIS, University of Bologna.Google Scholar
  9. Birch, J. (1780). Considerations on the efficacy of electricity in removing female obstructions. London: Cadell.Google Scholar
  10. Bose, G. M. (1744). Tentamina Electrica. Wittenberg: Ahlfeldium.Google Scholar
  11. Bose, G. M. (1744–1745). Abstract of a letter from Monsieur De Bozes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 43, 419–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bose, G. M. (1754). L’électricité, son origine et ses progrès, poème en deux livres. Leipsic: Lankisch.Google Scholar
  13. Cavallo, T. (1780). An essay on the theory and practice of medical electricity. London.Google Scholar
  14. Della formazione dei fulmini trattato del marchese Scipione Maffei. (1747). Novelle letterarie pubblicate in Firenze, 8, 649–656.Google Scholar
  15. Ferguson, J. (1770). An introduction to electricity. London.Google Scholar
  16. Graham, J. (1778). The general state of medical and chirurgical practice exhibited. Bath.Google Scholar
  17. Graham, J. (1780). Medical transactions of the temple of health. London.Google Scholar
  18. Hackmann, W. (1978). Electricity from glass. The Netherlands: Alphen aan den Rijn.Google Scholar
  19. Heilbron, J. (1979). Electricity in the 17th and 18th century. A study of early modern physics. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  20. Jallabert, J. (1749). Expériences sur l’électricité avec quelques conjectures sur la cause de ses effects. Genève: Barillon & Fils.Google Scholar
  21. Kratzenstein, C. G. (1745). Abhandlung von dem electricitat in der Urznenwissenschaft. Halle: Hemmerde.Google Scholar
  22. Krüger, J. G. (1744). Der Weltweisheit und Artzneygelahrheit Doctors und Professors auf der Friedrichs Universität Naturlehre nebst Kupfern und vollständigem Register. Halle: Hemmerde.Google Scholar
  23. Lane, T. (1767). Description of an electrometer invented by Mr Lane. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 57, 451–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lovett, R. (1756). Subtil medium prov’d. London: Hinton.Google Scholar
  25. Lovett, R. (1760). The Reviewers review’d. London: Lewis.Google Scholar
  26. Maffei, S. (1747). Della Formazione de’ Fulmini. Verona: Tumermani.Google Scholar
  27. Millburn, J. (1976). Benjamin Martin: Author, instrument-maker and country showman. Leyden: Noordhoff International.Google Scholar
  28. Millburn, J. (1983). The London evening courses of Benjamin Martin and James Ferguson, eighteenth-century lectures on experimental philosophy. Annals of Science, 40, 437–455.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Millburn, J. (1988). Wheelwright of the heavens: The life & work of James Ferguson, FRS. London: Vademecum.Google Scholar
  30. Morand, & Nollet. (1753). Expériences de l’Electricité appliqué a des Paralitiques. Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences de Paris pour l’année, 1749, 29–38.Google Scholar
  31. Morton, A. Q., & Wess, J. A. (1993). Public and private science. The King George III collection. Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with the Science Museum.Google Scholar
  32. Neale, J. (1747). Directions for gentlemen, who have electrical machines, how to proceed in their experiments. London: printed for the author.Google Scholar
  33. Nollet, J. A. (1750). Conjectures sur les causes de l’électricité des corps. Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences de Paris pour l’année, 1745, 109–151.Google Scholar
  34. Nollet, J. A. (1751). Observations sur quelques nouveaux phénomènes d’électricité. Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences de Paris pour l’année, 1746, 1–23.Google Scholar
  35. Piccolino, M. (2003). The taming of the ray. Electric fish research in the enlightenment from John Walsh to Alessandro Volta. Firenze: Olschki.Google Scholar
  36. Piccolino, M., & Bresadola, M. (2003), Rane, Torpedini e Scintille. Galvani, Volta, e l’elettricità animale. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri.Google Scholar
  37. Pivati, G. (1747). Della Elettricità Medica Lettera al Celebre Signore Francesco Maria Zanotti. Lucca.Google Scholar
  38. Porter, R. (1982). The sexual politics of James Graham. British journal for eighteenth-century studies, 5, 201–206.Google Scholar
  39. Porter, R. (Ed.) (1985). Patients and practitioners: Lay perceptions of medicine in pre-industrial society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Porter, R. (1990). Health for sale: Quackery in England (pp. 1660–1850). Manchester : Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Porter, R. (Ed.) (1995). Medicine in the enlightenment. Amsterdam: Rodopi.Google Scholar
  42. Porter, D., & Porter, R. (1989). Patient’s progress. Doctors and doctoring in eighteenth-century England. Oxford: Polity.Google Scholar
  43. Rowbottom M., & Susskind, C. (1984). Electricity and medicine. History of their interaction. San Francisco: San Francisco University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Salandin, G. A., & Pancino, A. (1987). Il “teatro” di filosofia sperimentale di Giovanni Poleni. Trieste: Lint.Google Scholar
  45. Schaffer, S. (1983). Natural philosophy and public spectacle in the eighteenth century. History of Science, 21, 1–43.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Snorrason, E. (1974). C.G. Kratzenstein and his studies on electricity during the eighteenth century. Odense: Odense University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Stewart, L. (1992). The rise of public science. Rhetoric, technology and natural philosophy in Newtonian Britain (pp. 1660–1750). Cambridge: Cambridge University.Google Scholar
  48. Veratti, G. (1748). Osservazioni Fisico-Mediche intorno all’Elettricità. Bologna: Della Volpe.Google Scholar
  49. Watson, W. (1746). Experiments and observations tending to illustrate the nature and properties of electricity. London.Google Scholar
  50. Wesley, J. (1760). The Desideratum, or electricity made plain and useful. London: Flexney.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paola Bertucci
    • 1
  1. 1.CIS, Dipartimento di FilosofiaUniversità di BolognaItaly

Personalised recommendations