Linnaeus and the Therapeutic Use of Electricity
Through A. Bäck in 1745, Linnaeus learned about the therapeutic use of electricity in Europe. It was through Sauvages in Montpellier that Linnaeus would develop a deeper interest in electricity. In a letter to Linnaeus, Sauvages described how he had managed to cure a number of paralyzed patients with the help of electricity. Other diseases, such as rheumatism, chilblains, and epilepsy, had also been treated. Linnaeus replied that he would immediately start using electricity. Linnaeus and Rosén got underway in the 1750s. The treatment was performed by Professor Strömer (electro-medical private practice), who was assisted by Linnaeus’ student Pehr Zetzell. The findings were reported in the work “Försök med Elektricitetens verkan på människans kropp” – Experiments on the effect of electricity on the human body, 1752), and the treatment grew to be so popular that an electricity machine was purchased for Nosocomium in Uppsala. It was operated by Zetzell, who also wrote a dissertation about the findings, “Elektriskt – medicinska satser” (Electric – medical theses, 1754). Prior to this Johan Lindhult had defended his dissertation under Linnaeus in 1752 on a subject from Materia medica (“Sjukdomar som igenom Electriciteten blifvit lindrade eller lyckeligen botade” – Diseases that have been alleviated or successfully cured by electricity). Linnaeus wanted to bring together the effects of electricity on the nervous system with his theories about the importance of smells. “Electricum exists in the air, is transported via inhaling to the lungs, from whence it is led by the blood to the brain and is stored as in a charge jar to be distributed via the nerves to the various parts of the body.” Linnaeus seems to be adumbrating the action potentials of nerve cells. This Materia electrica can also convey bodily sensations to the brain. Linnaeus has a rather murky conception of this.
It became fashionable to use electricity treatment, and there were probably suggestive elements in the effects.