Ever heard of a quack?

What does malpractice mean to you?

There were numerous medical practices during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were considered to be less than orthodox. While it may seem like common sense to someone today that many of these methods of treatment wouldn't work, it seemed like it was a medical breakthrough centuries ago.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818. Percy, writing the introduction to the second edition, makes reference to "German physiologists"in asserting the reanimation of the dead is "not of impossible occurrence."

Urinary tract stones were a common and serious problem at this time. The pain was so intense that patients often consented to painful, life-threatening surgery for a chance at relief. Dr Benjamin Bell's ascribed technique for stone removal is described:

The surgeon's left index finger was placed in the patient's rectum; the operator's right hand pushed in the suprapubic area to push the stone so that it bulged into the perineum; a transverse incision in front of the anus and through the bladder at the trigone was completed rapidly; the stone was pushed out by the finger in the rectum; if severe hemorrhage developed the patient was placed in hot water; the wound was dressed with wool soaked in warm water.

Evidently, Dr William Cheselden (1688-1752) of St Thomas' Hospital in London performed 312 lithotomies and lost only 20 patients. In other hands, the mortality rate approached 50%.

Dr. Elisha Perkins circa 1800

In 1796 Dr. Elisha Perkins was expelled by the Connecticut Medical Society for having reintroduced the practice of the theory of animal magnetism. She used metallic instruments to stroke pained areas of the body as a method of healing.

Perkins' instruments, known as " Tractors" were two pieces of metal, pointed at one end, rounded at the other, about three inches long and resembled horseshoe nails.

Storking the affected areas with this instrument was to bring relief from pain.

Many people now believe that the success of these tractors relies mostly on having faith in the treatment.

The image at the right shows Galvanic Tractors in a leather case which were made by Elisha Perkins, M.D. 1798, and are made of combinations of copper, zinc, gold, iron, & silver.

Menczer Museum of Medicine and Dentistry of the Hartford Medical and the Hartford Dental Societies.

Bleeding was a popular suggestion for various maladies, from headaches to ingrown toenails.

Women's healthcare in England often relied upon bleeding as a cure for menstruation. This was not considered a monthly inconvience, but rather a horrible experience.

Every 28 days, elite women would seek treatment from their physicians. The physicians would cure the woman's bleeding by using leeches.


The medicinal use of leeches became so popular in the mid-nineteenth century that the medicinal leech, H. medicinalis, became an endangered species.

In fact, France, which previously had harvested its own leeches, was forced to import approximately 40 million leeches in 1833 to meet the demand.

Francois Joseph Victor Broussais, a prominent physician at the start of the nineteenth century. Broussais was one of the first who promoted the leech as nature's most sublime cure-all. He believed that the parasite was able to such all harmful chemicals from the human body. However, his theory did not hold true. His theories of leech therapy led to numerous deaths, including the death of his star pupil, a young student who looked up to Broussais as his mentor.

The student wanted to help demonstrate Broussais' theory of treatment, so he inoculated himself with fresh syphilitic pus containing the active organism before an audience. A few days later, the student was experiencing skin lesions that were characteristic of the beginning stages of the disease. Broussais claimed, however, that the red sores were merely a "local" infection and that the truly dangerous disease lay in the intestines and could be sucked out by leeches. The student allowed his mentor to use leeches to bleed the disease out of his body. But the sores did not heal and eventually grew larger and ruptured causing swelling of the student's glands in his armpits, groin and along the clavicle. Within a few weeks of the experiment, the student committed suicide, as his beliefs in medicine were shattered and his health deteriorated.

This student was one of many unfortunate people who feel victim to experimental methods of medical treatment. But, it seemed that even in death, not everyone was safe from doctors who wished to learn more about humans, medicine and ways the two could be combined together to create new treatments.

Since doctors were not allowed to dissect donated and unclaimed bodies for medical research before 1832, often times these doctors found alternate ways to carry out their work.

"Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?" - Victor Frankenstein

Before the Anatomy Act of that year, practical research and instruction in human anatomy in Britain had depended on judicial executions as the sole legitimate source of corpses.

But, the law is not always abided by. There were never sufficient numbers of cadavers to meet the needs of medical experts and scientists. So, people began searching for corpses on their own.

The activities of the so-called `bodysnatchers', who dug up freshly-buried bodies and sold them to anatomists for the advancement of science, have been documented in great detail. But the largest clue to these actions, are the dissected bodies themselves.

It appears that dissections before 1832 were far more common than has been thought.


Finis, 1733
Artist unknown
Photographic reproduction of an engraving from William Cheselden (1688-1752), Osteographia, or, The Anatomy of the Bones, 1733
National Library of Medicine Collection

Victor Frankenstein wanted to create his own living creature. His goal was to bring about life from death. While trying to bring life to his creature, Victor raided cemeteries to gather body parts for his work.

To find out more about Victor Frankenstein and his relationship with science, click on the "Victor Frankenstein" link below.


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Copyright 2002: History 257 - Mount Holyoke College
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