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School of Medicine discoveries

May 19, 2017

Piece of the Past

With its powerful-looking hand crank and shiny copper wiring, Davis and Kidder’s Magneto-Electric Machine gave the impression it could cure any malady and relieve every ache and pain.

This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. You can flip through the whole issue online.Davis and Kidder’s Magneto-Electric Machine

But looks can be deceiving.

“This was 100 percent quackery,” says Andrew Bain, who manages the medical artifact collection of Tompkins-McCaw Library’s Special Collection and Archives. “We know this device had no clinical value.”

While it was not used or touted by physicians, the machine was incredibly popular around the home. People in cities and rural areas alike believed in its promise to relieve pain and cure mental and nervous conditions.

W.H. Burnap of New York City manufactured the machine from the 1850s through the 1880s, and the device did not change much over time. Simply turn a hand crank to spin a cogwheel and generate an electric current. How much current depends on how fast one turns the crank.

The electricity was then delivered to the patient through two metallic cords or wires. Patients usually held the cords, but they could be attached to any part of the body.

“It sounds bizarre,” Bain says. “At the time, harnessing electricity was a novel idea, so it was easy to convince people that it worked.” While the machine never lived up to its promises, it remains an important part of medical history. The item was donated to the Tompkins-McCaw Library in 1987 by the late Lucy Harvie, who served on the faculty of  the School of Pharmacy for more than 40 years. It is one of about 6,500 pieces in the school’s Medical Artifacts Collection. Of those, Bain said, more than 300 are home remedy products that are more aligned with pop medicine than real therapy.

“It’s important to understand our past,” he says. “It’s important to remember that science and popular understanding of that science don’t always move in sync with each other. It’s safe to say that some people then were desperate for a cure, especially for conditions  medicine didn’t yet have answers for.”

The device, featured in home goods catalogs, claimed to not only relieve everyday pain but cure deafness, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and spinal deformities. It also promised to treat mental conditions such as madness, hysteria, insanity and dumbness. Today, those symptoms might be diagnosed as autism, Down syndrome, schizophrenia or depression.

“Back then, this felt like a magic trick,” Bain says. “When people touched the device, they could feel something, so they theorized it must be working. Today, we all understand the limits of electricity, but then, it offered hope.”

By Janet Showalter

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016