Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to John Pringle, 21 December 1757

To John Pringle4

ALS: The Royal Society

Dec. 21. 17575


The following is what I can at present recollect, relating to the Effects of Electricity in Paralytic Cases, which have fallen under my Observation.

Some Years since, when the News papers made Mention of great Cures perform’d in Italy or Germany by means of Electricity, a Number of Paralytics were brought to me from different Parts of Pensilvania and the neighbouring Provinces, to be electris’d, which I did for them, at their Request. My Method was, to place the Patient first in a Chair on an electric Stool, and draw a Number of large strong Sparks from all Parts of the affected Limb or Side. Then I fully charg’d two 6 Gallon Glass Jarrs, each of which had about 3 square feet of Surface coated and I sent the united Shock of these thro’ the affected Limb or Limbs, repeating the Stroke commonly three Times each Day. The first Thing observ’d was an immediate greater sensible Warmth in the lame Limbs that had receiv’d the Stroke than in the others; and the next Morning the Patients usually related that they had in the Night felt a pricking Sensation in the Flesh of the paralytic Limbs, and would sometimes shew a Number of small red Spots which they suppos’d were occasion’d by those Prickings: The Limbs too were found more capable of voluntary Motion, and seem’d to receive Strength; a Man, for Instance, who could not, the first Day, lift the lame Hand from off his Knee, would the next Day raise it four or five Inches, the third Day higher, and on the fifth Day was able, but with a feeble languid Motion, to take off his Hat. These Appearances gave great Spirits to the Patients, and made them hope a perfect Cure; but I do not remember that I ever saw any Amendment after the fifth Day: Which the Patients perceiving, and finding the Shocks pretty severe, they became discourag’d, went home and in a short time relapsed; so that I never knew any Advantage from Electricity in Palsies that was permanent. And how far the apparent temporary Advantage might arise from the Exercise in the Patients Journey and coming daily to my House, or from the Spirits given by the Hope of Success, enabling them to exert more Strength in moving their Limbs, I will not pretend to say.

Perhaps some permanent Advantage might have been obtained, if the Electric Shocks had been accompanied with proper Medicine and Regimen, under the Direction of a skilful Physician. It may be, too, that a few great Strokes, as given in my Method, may not be so proper as many small ones; since by the Account from Scotland of the Case in which 200 Shocks from a Phial were given daily, seems that a perfect Cure has been made. As to any uncommon Strength supposed to be in the Machine used in that Case, [I] imagine it could have no Share in the Effect produced; since the Strength of the Shock from charg’d Glass, is in proportion to the Quantity of Surface of the Glass coated; [so] that my Shocks from those large Jarrs must have been much greater than any that could be received from a Phial held in the hand.

I am, with great Respect, Sir, Your most obedient Servant

B Franklin

Dr. Pringle

Read at R.S. LIX. January 12. 1758.

An Acct. of the Effects of Electricity in paralytic Cases. In a letter to John Pringle M.D. F.R.S. from Benjamin Franklin Esqr. F.R.S.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

4See above, VI, 178 n, for Pringle. By November 24 BF had recovered sufficiently from his long illness to begin attending the regular weekly meetings of the Royal Society. He appeared for the first time that day, signed the obligation, and was formally admitted as a fellow. On December 15 Pringle read a series of communications about the remarkable cure of a paralytic in Berwickshire, Scotland, by electric-shock treatments similar to those BF had tried in Philadelphia (see above, IV, 197–8, 205, 503 n); Phil. Trans., L (1757), Part I, 383–5, 392–5. Probably prompted by the discussion at this meeting, BF furnished Pringle with the additional information in this letter, which was read at the Society’s meeting on Jan. 12, 1758. Ibid., Part II (1758), 481–3. Barbeu Dubourg (Oeuvres de M. Franklin. … (Paris, 1773), I, 193–5), followed his French publication of it with “Reflexions du Traducteur,” commenting further on the physiological effects of electric-shock treatments.

5BF probably welcomed scientific diversion on this particular day; on it he appeared, apparently for the first time, before the Board of Trade, Lord Halifax presiding, an event of considerable if nightmarish importance to him. He was obliged to listen to a violent denunciation of his fellow agent, Robert Charles. The Board reprimanded Charles for “improper and indecent behaviour,” found his representations “irregular and unprecedented, … and unbecoming his character as an agent,” termed other acts of his arrogant and insolent, and found his requests “groundless and injurious.” Journal of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations from January 1754 to December 1758 (London, 1933), pp. 356–8. Ironically, Charles’s counsel was Alexander Wedderburn, notorious as BF’s tormentor at the Cockpit in 1774.

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