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Electricity has been used in medicine since the days of the Romans. In 46 Scribonius Largus recommended the discharge of the electric torpedo fish for relief of pain. But the modern history of medical electricity begins with the electrostatic generator, invented by Otto von Guericke (1663) and later by Francis Hauksbee the Elder (1796). Guericke discussed the nature of the Universe, using a sulfur sphere as a model. The sphere, rubbed by his hand, created electrostatic electricity. Von Guericke's sulfur globe died without issue. Modern electrical machines derive from a 1675 observation by the French astronomer, Jean Picard. While moving a mercury barometer in the dark, he noticed a glow in the evacuated tube above the mercury. News of this "mercurial phosphor" reached the Royal Society in London, where Hauksbee used a spinning, evacuated glass globe mounted on a lathe bed to study Picard's glow. He recreated the glow and noted, when his hand rubbed the globe as it spun, strong electrical attraction of threads and other light bodies. Georg Matthias Bose began his electrical experiments in 1734, and in 1737 began using a spinning glass globe after the fashion of Hauksbee. In 1743 he used a tinplate telescope tube to store his electricity, thus inventing the prime conductor of most later electrostatic generators. Also in 1743, Johann Heinrich Winkler added a friction cushion to the spinning globe. This completed the device.
The term “medical electricity” came to be used in the eighteenth century to indicate the applications of the electric fluid to the human body as a medical remedy. It was after 1745 with the invention of the frictional electrostatic generator, that the therapeutic effects of electricity became an intriguing topic of philosophical investigation. The subject was controversial, but it attracted the attention of 18th century physicians. Despite initial scepticism, the Royal Society of London welcomed investigation, “romantic” as it might seem. After the 1750’s, medical electricity intrigued electricians belonging to different areas of practical or philosophical knowledge: natural philosophers, physicians, apothecaries and instrument makers, all came to share an interest in medical electricity. English scientist, George Adams, published a wide range of works including Essay on Electricity (1784), Essays on the Microscope (1787), Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy (1794).
Adams's instruments -- from Adams's Essay on Electricity
John Wesley (1704-1791) was the eighteenth century English clergyman who helped to pioneer the use of electricity for the treatment of illness. In 1760 he published The Desideratum, or Electricity made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense, based on his use of electricity in free medical clinics which he had established for the poor in Bristol and London. Although not widely appreciated by either science or medicine, several historians have credited Wesley with being one of the most notable electrotherapists in the eighteenth century and with stimulating nineteenth century developments in psychiatry and general medicine. Wesley lists 37 ailments in which electrification had been found eminently useful. In the tradition of English parish priests, he combined treatment for illness with spiritual evangelism - a combination which characterized much of the Methodist movement, which Wesley founded.
Best known as the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) was also deeply committed to the democratization of medicine. Wesley, an advocate for social justice, recognized that medicine in England was increasingly available only to the wealthy, partly due to a shortage of physicians during a time of great population growth in England.
Excerpt from the Book: Modern Monastic Medicine
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