Blog: “Ben Franklin, Electrotherapist”

A nifty new blog called Brain in a Vat recently posted an item about Benjamin Franklin’s interest in Electrotherapy.  Why?  The author, Noam Rudnick, visited the Mütter Museum and was shocked by what he discovered.

On one pedestal, I discovered a Van de Graaff generator that belonged to Franklin. The idea of curing diseases with electricity had been around since Roman doctors utilized electric rays, but it was especially in vogue during the late 18th century. Doctors were reporting that electricity could revive paralyzed limbs. Skeptical of these claims, Franklin took it upon himself to test the new technique….

Eventually Franklin decided that electrotherapy held little merit and discouraged other patients from seeking the treatment. He attributed some of the positive effects of electricity to the placebo effect….

The posting also includes some interesting historical trivia:

Though lacking formal training, Franklin took on many other medical projects. For instance, King Louis XVI appointed Franklin to a committee that investigated Franz Mesmer and his theories of animal magnetism. Franklin was instrumental in discrediting Mesmer’s therapy, and Thomas Jefferson would later write that “[A]nimal magnetism… received its death-wound from [Franklin’s] hand…

Related resources are provided below.


  • Finger, S. & Zaromb, F.  (2006).  Benjamin Franklin and Shock-Induced Amnesia.  American Psychologist, 61(3), 240-248.

Shock-induced amnesia received considerable attention after Cerletti popularized electroconvulsive shock therapy in the late 1930s. Yet, often overlooked is the fact that Benjamin Franklin recognized that passing electricity through the head could affect memory for the traumatic event. Franklin described his findings on himself and others in several letters from the mid-1700s, 2 of which were published in his lifetime. What he observed was confirmed in 1783 by physician Jan Ingenhousz, who was one of his correspondents. Although Ingenhousz had lost his memory for his electrical accident and was confused immediately afterward, he felt strangely elated and unusually sharp the next morning. Hence, he called for clinical trials with patients with melancholia who were not responding to more conventional therapies. After Franklin received Ingenhousz’s letter, he also called for clinical trials. Neither man, however, tied the possible new cure for melancholia to the memory loss–nor did the operators that began to treat some patients with melancholia successfully with cranial shocks. Only much later would the amnesia be thought to be associated with the cure.


  • Howard, A. R.  (1975).  A historical note on animal magnetism.  American Psychologist, 30(8), 863.

Describes the role played by Benjamin Franklin in the demise of animal magnetism research. Franklin served on a commission appointed by the French Academy of Sciences whose subsequent report failed to support the work of F. A. Mesmer and his disciple C. Deslon.

  • Gallo, D. A. & Finger, S.  (2000).  The power of a musical instrument: Franklin, the Mozarts, Mesmer, and the glass armonica.  History of Psychology, 3(4), 326-343.

In 1761 Benjamin Franklin invented the armonica (often referred to as the glass harmonica), an instrument designed to simplify the playing of the musical glasses. The instrument immediately became popular and inspired compositions by Wolfgang Mozart, who had the opportunity to hear and play one at the house of Franz Anton Mesmer. Armonica music was used by Mesmer in his seances, because he felt it could promote healing by propagating a mystical fluid that he called animal magnetism through the body. After Mesmer’s theories were debunked by a highly respected panel of scientists, the armonica fell out of vogue. Because Franklin was on the panel that examined and discredited mesmerism, he indirectly contributed to his own invention’s demise.

  • McConkey, K. M. & Campbell, P.  (1985).  Benjamin Franklin and Mesmerism.  International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 33(2), 122-130.

Presents a historiographical note that reviews Franklin’s involvement with the practice and investigation of Mesmerism. A survey of material about Franklin’s period in Paris indicates that he had a higher degree of personal involvement with, and a more detailed opinion of, Mesmerism than has been generally considered.

  • McConkey, K. M. & Campbell, P.  (2002).  Benjamin Franklin and Mesmerism, revisited.  International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 50(4), 320-331.

The authors revisit and update their previous historiographical note (McConkey & Perry, 1985) on Benjamin Franklin’s involvement with and investigation of animal magnetism or mesmerism. They incorporate more recent literature and offer additional comment about Franklin’s role in and views about mesmerism. Franklin had a higher degree of personal involvement with and a more detailed opinion of mesmerism than has been previously appreciated.

See also:

  • Franklin, B. et al.  (2002).  Report of the commissioners charged by the King with the examination of animal magnetism.  International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 50(4), 332-363.

Reprint of a report by Benjamin Franklin and others on the examination of animal magnetism.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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