A slightly different post from me today, inspired by a good mooch through newspaper articles of 1849. I was actually looking for cuttings about the Weston-super-Mare Pier Company, but ended up reading a piece about the Alleged Effects of Electricity on the Cholera, in The Bristol Mercury (Saturday, June 30, 1849). I wouldn't normally type out an entire body of text, but this is just fascinating for anyone interested in the whacky theories concocted by our ancestors with regard to the nature of disease and the causes of ill health in humans:
The following is a letter of M. Audrand to the president of the Academy of Paris, respecting his experiments on the decline of electricity in the atmosphere as leading to the increase of epidemic diseases - especially cholera - and which at this time excites so much attention :-
'Paris, June 10. M. le President -- Since the cholera has been raging in Paris with more or less intensity for three months, I have made daily observations of the action of the electric machine in order to ascertain if there is not a certain relation between the intensity of the scourge and the absence of the electric fluid, habitually spread in the atmosphere. The machine I have used for my daily observations is rather powerful; in ordinary weather it gives, after two or three turns of the wheel, brilliant sparks of five to six centimetres. I have remarked that since the invasion of the epidemic, I have not been able to produce on any one occasion the same effect; during the months of April and May, the sparks, obtained with great trouble, have never exceeded two to three centimetres, and their variations accorded very nearly with the variations of the cholera; this was already for me a strong presumption that I was on the traces of the important fact that I was endeavouring to find. Nevertheless, I was not yet convinced, because one might attribute the effect to the moisture of the air, or to the irregularities of the electric machine. Thus I waited with impatience the arrival of fine weather and heat, to continue my observations with more certainty. At last fine weather, and, to my astonishment, the machine, frequently consulted, far from showing, as it ought to have done, an augmentation of electricity, has given signs less and less sensible, to such a degree that during the days of the 4th, 5th, and 6th of June it was impossible to obtain anything but slight cracklings, without sparks. On the 7th, the machine remained quite dumb. This new decrease of the electric fluid has perfectly accorded, as is only too well known, with the renewed violence of the cholera; for my part, I was not more alarmed than astonished; my conviction was complete. I saw only the consequences of the fact already supposed. It may be imagined with what anxiety in these moments of crisis I consulted the machine, the sad and frightful interpreter of a great calamity. At last, on the morning of the 8th, some feeble sparks re-appeared, and from hour to hour their intensity increased. I felt with joy that the vivifying fluid was returning in the atmosphere. Towards evening a storm announced at Paris that the electricity had re-entered its domain -- to my eyes it was the cholera which disappeared with the cause which produced it. The next day, Saturday the 9th, I continued my observations, the machine, at the least touch, rendered with facility some lively sparks. I have thought it my duty, Mr President, to give immediate information of these facts to the academy. The question to me seems now perfectly demonstrated, that nature has provided in the atmosphere a mass of electricity which contributes to the support and maintenance of life. If, by some cause, this mass of electricity decreases, or at any time becomes impoverished nearly to exhaustion, what happens? Everybody suffers; those who carry within themselves a sufficient stock of personal electricity, resist; those who can only live by borrowing electricity from the common mass, this mass being exhausted, perish. This explains clearly, and in a rational way, that not only cholera, but perhaps also all epidemics which from time to time afflict humanity, are caused by the decrease of electricity. If this great fact was recognised and admitted in principle, it would be, I believe, easy for medical science, which possesses many means of producing and maintaining electricity, to prepare itself to combat with success, if it should again return, the scourge that now seems to be arrested in its march. Audrand.'
Referring to the above communication, Mr T. W. Cooke, late resident surgeon of the Royal Free Hospital, London, has published a letter in which he says -- 'One of the Tooting children was seized with cholera in the Royal Free Hospital. The patient was a girl about eight years old, under Dr. Peacock's charge. In about four hours she became completely collapsed, the power of deglutition had ceased, and consequently all internal remedies were useless. Dr. Peacock applied one pole of the galvanic machine over her heart, the other over the region of the stomach, or rather of the solar plexus (a sort of grand central terminus of the nerves, supplying all the viscera). In half a minute the child began to rally, some strong beef tea was got into her stomach in less than ten minutes, and ultimately the resurrection was complete.'
According to the History of the Cholera in Manchester, in 1849; As Reported to the Registrar General of Births, Deaths, &c., the theory of the electric origin of cholera originated with this M. Audrand, whose hypothesis, the writers of the report concluded (after conducting their own research into the matter, using a kite attached to a length of copper wire), was found to be untenable.
M. Audrand wasn't the only one to conclude that a want of electricity in the atmosphere was to blame for ill health. Sir James Murray wrote, in his Abstract of Certain Experiments on the Nature of Epidemics, in 1848, that the Irish cholera epidemic of 1832, and the outbreaks of Malaria in Italy in 1834 and 1844, were due to 'disturbed electro-galvanic currents and accumulations, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, causing a want of electrical equilibrium in human bodies'. He claimed that a cloud of positive energy hovering above a person would draw his negative energy upwards whilst forcing his positive energy towards the ground; when the cloud dissipated, the negative and positive energies would rush towards each other, often killing the man instantly. He also believed that domestic animals were immune to the effects of electrical disturbances due to the fact that their fur, when wet, acted as a conductor which diffused electrical currents into the air, preventing such electrical accumulations from affecting their small brains.
According to Mr Murray, in order to address the problems associated with the absence of electricity, Dr Priestly (who wrote the first comprehensive history of electricity, published in 1769) had long since suggested that patients could be electrified in groups in a chamber supported on glass feet, and Mr Ellis further recommended, in 1831, that patients suffering from cholera should be treated on beds supported by glass bottles. But Mr Murray was not interested in curing cholera; he was more interested in preventing it. He proposed that houses be insulated against these dangerous electrical forces, a process which involved the use of lightning rods and dry lime.
I could go on about this all day. However, to avoid the risk of writing a book, I won't. Instead I'll leave you with the image below, showing a quack doctor using one of these electric machines to treat a woman for a headache. Her chair is supported on upturned glasses and her feet are resting on a stool supported by glass legs. Presumably, her negatives and positives had been knocked out of whack.