- James Stark, AHRC knowledge transfer fellow, University of Leeds and Thackray Museum, Leeds
Electrotherapy is most often associated with its modern manifestations, yet it has a tradition that stretches back to at least the mid-18th century. One of the major advocates of this technique was Otto Overbeck (1852-1937), an eccentric industrial scientist and inventor. He studied chemistry at University College London and worked for a brewery in Grimsby as scientific director—a common career path for chemists in the late 19th century. While there, Overbeck patented a number of devices in relation to his work, but he is best remembered for contributions to electrotherapy in his later life.
His health deteriorated during the early 1920s, and he became increasingly desperate in his search for effective medical treatment. He developed an electrotherapy device of his own: the Overbeck “Rejuvenator,” an example of which can be seen in the Thackray Museum, Leeds. The device consisted of a series of low power batteries and intricately shaped electrodes, and Overbeck patented different aspects of it in countries around the world, and persuaded the Ediswan Company to manufacture the Rejuvenator. He was not a doctor, but Overbeck then sought to add to his credibility by publishing a curious yet compelling text on electricity and health.
A New Electronic Theory of Life first appeared in 1925 and went through at least four editions up to 1932. In it, Overbeck linked almost all ailments and diseases to a bodily imbalance of electricity. Every illness, he said, apart from deformities or those caused by disease germs, could be explained by an upset of the body’s natural electrical state. In Overbeck’s terms, “[w]e are electric in substance and in action; its [electricity’s] balance is a healthy life, its unbalance is disease, always excluding germs and malformation or physical damage, and upon the electro study [sic] of the human frame and its existence everywhere, and its degree and extent, the whole of medical science in the future rests.”
This treatise was more than just a layman’s ramblings, however. In A New Electronic Theory of Life Overbeck referred to his own invention; electrotherapy to restore bodily function, particularly in older people, was “now practically and effectively carried out by Overbeck’s Rejuvenator,” according to the author. The book was offered free of charge in advertisements for the Rejuvenator; Overbeck clearly hoped to persuade them that his treatment had a scientific basis. His hope was far from forlorn, and he was able to buy a palatial house and gardens, now managed by the National Trust, in Salcombe, Devon.
A New Electronic Theory of Life was therefore part of a complex marketing system for Overbeck’s own quasi-medical device. Claims of scientific authority for both the Rejuvenator and its inventor, the use of patents as indicators of efficacy, and extensive testimonies from medical practitioners were all used in marketing literature. It attracted substantial interest from patients looking for an alternative to traditional medicine, particularly when they were seeking cures for minor ailments such as baldness and fatigue. Electrotherapy was a popular method of self treatment; it did not require the intrusion of a doctor, and Overbeck attempted to sell his patented Rejuvenator by giving scientific justification. He protected his device with patents, and persuaded purchasers with prose.
Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2032
A New Electronic Theory of Life (1925)