Electricity treatments

Electricity treatments
Between positivism and Belle Époque.
Virtual exhibit dedicated to the use of electrical medicine. Curator Christian Carletti.


Throughout the XVIII century an as yet unknown form of electricity of an almost magical nature was fascinating natural philosophers, eclectic intellectuals and aristocrats who made this ‘fluid’ a sort of curious court prodigy, able to surprise and astonish. However during the course of the XIX century expectations regarding electricity were starting to grow, and were being kept alive by one success after the other: in particular the vast telegraph system, which by 1860 was covering a large part of the territory of Europe, had had an impact on the contemporary social and scientific imagination comparable, to say the least, to the revolution started by the internet in the 1990s.

The various stages in the technical success enjoyed by electricity hadn’t only had an effect on the world of physics. A large group of physiologists found themselves faced with the same question. What is electricity? How did it work? The research carried out in Germany by Emil Du Bois-Reymond on the nature of the nervous-muscular system and on the transmission speed of nerve signals had confirmed that electricity played the same leading role in human physiology that it had had in telegraph communication. Hermann von Helmholtz, Du Bois-Reymond’s colleague in Berlin, considered the telegraphy to be the most effective paragon to explain electrical transmission in bodies.

At the same time doctors had experimentally tested the effects of electricity in the field of pathology and therapies. The De L’électrisation Localisée, published in 1855 by the French Duchenne of Boulogne, rapidly became a point of reference opening up a debate on the curative effects of electricity which was destined to continue well beyond the discovery of the X-rays. The same conviction that electricity was a powerful healing factor was found intact at the beginning of the XXth century: “matter – it says in a electrotherapy manual from 1923 – isn’t, in the final analysis, anything other than electricity and each demonstration of life is a transformation of energy, that is of electricity. And all living phenomenon is accompanied by electricity. From this it can be concluded that the most natural and energetic medium to modify organic life, to stimulate it when it is depressed, to transform it when it is deviates, or to appease it when it is excited, is electricity”.

The diseases that correct application of electrotherapies techniques could cure had in the meantime multiplied and included “neuralgias”, “neurosis” ( epilepsy, hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy, alienation) “paralysis” (brain paralysis, traumatic paralysis, atrophy). Furthermore electricity found application in surgery (galvanizing-cauterizing) and was used to cure cases of poisoning (curare and chloroform), was considered effective in the optical field, useful against impotence, and capable of stimulating pregnancies or abortions.

The goal of this exhibition is to explore this growing interest among doctors in the interaction between the ‘electrical’ and the human body. Inspired particularly by the ambition to describe the trust put in the “curative” power of medical electricity and the effect of this power on the concept of man and nature, we have put in the centre of the halls of this virtual museum the machines used in electrical medicine that were in circulation principally in Europe.

The main thread running through the exhibit is essentially the fact that the models which are on show do not come from history of science museums, but are the exclusive property of private collectors, lovers of markets or auction houses. The instruments that these collectors kept, but especially their curiosity, enterprise and competence represent a precious, usable source for historical research. The exhibition depends on their willingness to collaborate.

With the collabotation of:
Paolo Brenni
Oronzo Mauro
Giorgio Mirandola
Gianfranco Rocchini (Rocchini-Dumas collection)
Diego Urbani (collezione omonima)

Go to exhibition