The Strange Case of the Electric Shock Machine: The Plot Thickens

Our last blog post described the discovery of an intriguing electric shock device which was donated to the Hunterian along with some papers that are now in the archive. Working together, the Hunterian and Archive Services have found out more about it.

Nicky Reeves, Curator of Scientific and Medical History Collections at the Hunterian, visited the National Library of Scotland to read a book written by the machine’s inventor. He explains:

 We found much more detail in a 98 page long account of the device, written by the inventor, an Australian physician, in 1893: “The Electro-Neurotone Apparatus: Its Use & Application in Various Forms of Nervous & Other Diseases, A Descriptive Treatise by the Inventor FC Hodgkinson”. In addition to neuralgia, the device was recommended for the treatment of chilblains, rheumatism, sciatica, dyspepsia, paralysis, strengthening muscles to aid recovery from lung diseases like tuberculosis, dental pain, insomnia, defective hearing and many other nervous and “spinal” complaints.

The device is comparatively simple. The physician holds an insulated handle, two metal contact plates on the base of the device are applied to a specific part of the body, and an electric current, supplied by an external battery, passes between the plates and through the body. Unlike other “senseless experiments with electrical apparatus”, such as passing a strong current through an entire limb (p.3), the very localised application results in the specific application of electricity to damaged areas, and “a mild and agreeable sensation is alone experienced” (p.22).

Interestingly, Hodgkinson’s book prescribes the Electro-Neurotone for the evidently serious and commonplace condition of “Telegraph Operator’s Cramp”. With new industrial technologies come new industrial injuries, clearly, and what we would recognise as repetitive strain injury was classed by Hodgkinson as a nervous disease treated by application of the Neurotone all over the body: “commencing at the spine, work to the shoulder, elbow, and side of the hands, between the wrists and small fingers”, he advised (p.59). For practitioners like Hodgkinson the nervous system itself was one very complex system of wires and networks, analogical to the telegraphic system, or a telephone exchange: in his discussion of the ‘Theory of Neurotone’, Hodgkinson describes the brain has acting as a “multiple switchboard”, whilst individual nerves are like telephone cables, and all is connected via the spine (p.17). Like many of his contemporaries, Hodgkinson believed in the reality of “degeneration”: an intertwining of physiological and moral weakness increasingly witnessed in urban societies.

Just because we don’t use such devices today, does not mean that Hodgkinson was a fraud. The 1893 work is full of learned testimonies from both British and Australian physicians describing their own successful use of the Neurotone. So what can we conclude about the medical practices of our Campbell? Without a written account of its uses, and absent any case histories recorded by Campbell, we simply don’t know much about how or even if he used the Electro-Neurotone in his practice. Markings on the underside of the box suggest that it was purchased in March 1899 at WB Hilliards & Sons, respectable suppliers in Glasgow who made instruments for the likes of Lister. Such a device may well have sat on a physician’s shelf or desk for decades without ever being used, or, particularly as we know that the “Class O” device was intended for home use, perhaps our Campbell regularly advised his patients to purchase one. We simply don’t know!


Another electrical device in the collection

Whilst it has not been possible to answer every question about the electric shock machine, the process of working with Nicky has allowed us both to better understand these kind of devices and the period Dr Campbell was working in. Whereas previously Dr Campbell’s notes showed only his life as a student, instruments from his medical practice give more detail about his later life. This opens up more collections which have been deposited with both archival material and artefacts, particularly those that contain medical or scientific materials. Furthermore it is clear that this would make an interesting topic for wider research, as these kind of devices have not been thoroughly examined. Overall it is certain that we have both learnt about much more than simply the intriguing electric shock machine.

Categories: Archive Services

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