Views & Reviews Past Caring

Shocking treatment

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 08 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3566
  1. Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
  1. wendymoore{at}

Nothing stimulated the 18th century mind, or body, quite so much as electricity. For scientists and the public alike, the mystical properties of electrical power provided both medical hope and endless entertainment throughout the 1700s.

Named after the Greek word for amber, electricity had been used in medical treatment since ancient times. But it was only after the invention in the 1740s of the Leyden jar, which could store an electrical charge, that electricity generated mass interest. Fascinated by this elemental fluid or fire, experimenters sent electrical charges through rats, cats, dogs, frogs, and, inevitably, people.

Willing volunteers linked hands to feel the force. In London scientists watched sparks fly as charges passed through circles of up to 70 people. In France onlookers gasped as chains of 180 soldiers or 200 monks leapt into the air. And when electric eels were brought to London in the 1770s, eel parties became the latest craze.

It did not take scientists long to explore the therapeutic possibilities of electricity. Having proved that lightning was genuine electricity with his famed kite experiment, Benjamin Franklin was among the first to practise electrical therapy. He treated patients with paralysis, usually from stroke, who descended on his Pennsylvanian home to sit in his electric chair. After sending a charge through the affected part, Franklin observed that many patients regained feeling and movement. “A man, for instance, who could not the first day lift the lame hand from off his knee, would the next day raise it four or five inches, the third day higher,” he told the Royal Society, though he remained unconvinced of long term benefits.

The preacher John Wesley had no such doubts. The closest thing to a panacea, electricity “seldom or never fails,” he declared. In his 1760 tract Desideratum, Wesley listed a catalogue of ailments that electricity could cure, including blindness, deafness, epilepsy, sciatica, consumption, and paralysis, and gave an even longer list of successful case histories. Noting that electricity was most effective in treating problems related to the nerves, Wesley anticipated Galvani and Volta by asking, “And what if the nervous juice itself, be a fluid of this kind?”

The surgeon John Hunter advocated electric shocks to the chest to resuscitate drowned people. Inspired by the case of a 3 year old girl who was revived by electric shocks after falling from a window in 1774, he argued, “It is probably the only method we have of immediately stimulating the heart.” The physician Erasmus Darwin was another enthusiast. He used electrical therapy to treat jaundice, gallstones, toothache, and eye infections with, he claimed, huge success.

So far from being surprised at news that a paralysed man could learn to walk through electrical impulses to his spinal cord, Georgian readers would have been more amazed had the treatment failed.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3566


  • Sources: Cambridge N. John Wesley, William Cowper and Samuel Johnson: electricity in the enlightenment. The New Rambler 2006-7: 14-28. Franklin B. An account of the effects of electricity in paralytic cases. Phil Trans 1757-8;50:481-3. Wesley J. Desideratum: or, electricity made plain and useful. London, 1760.

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