Benjamin Franklin, mental illness, and the electrical cure

Stanley FINGER and Sherry BEAUDREAU
Washington University, St. Louis


Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) had a life-long interest in assisting the mentally ill. In the 1750s, while helping to fund and set up the first hospital in the American colonies, he saw to it that the needs of patients with mental problems were addressed. And later in his life, while in France, he headed a commission to evaluate Mesmer's claims about animal magnetism and healing using objective, scientific methods. Less well known is that Franklin, the leading electrician of his day, also attempted to treat mentally ill patients with electric shocks. This presentation will examine this part of Franklin's medicine. First to be examined will be one of his cases from the 1750s, an hysteric who exhibited seizures. In this context, we shall address the question of what hysteria signified in 18th-century medicine. Second, we shall examine a novel suggestion made by Franklin and his Dutch physician friend, Jan Ingenhousz, in the 1780s --- namely that electricity applied to the head/brain may benefit hospitalized mental patients with severe melancholia. It will be seen that the latter idea, which was presented to officials in charge of mental institutions in France and England, arose not from Franklin's earlier experience with hysteria, but from accidents that he and Ingenhousz men had while conducting electrical treatments and experiments. Oddly, Franklin and Ingenhousz are never mentioned in historical reviews on electrical shocks to the head for serious mental problems, although they might well have been the first to put the idea into circulation.


18th Century Neuroscience Symposium -- Function in the "Long" 18th Century: The Transition from Medieval Cell Doctrine to Cortical Localization Doctrine
Saturday, 26 June 2004, 9:00 am - 6:30 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada