Electricity and Pancakes

Adrian Thomas describes how the poet William Cowper used electricity to treat a friend who suffered a stroke.

I had a significant birthday recently, and as a birthday treat, we decided to visit Olney in Buckinghamshire where the poet William Cowper (1731-1800)  lived. In his day Cowper was arguably the most popular and influential poet in the English language with his poems celebrating the countryside and ordinary life. He was also committed to the abolition of slavery writing The Negro’s Complaint, which was much admired by US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).

18th century man in formal dress with head covering

William Cowper (1731-1800), Published by Vernor & Hood, Poultry, 1 February 1801. (author’s collection)

We stayed at the excellent Bull Hotel in Olney where Cowper went in 1771 after his maid Molly contracted smallpox, and he was forced to leave his house. The fascinating Cowper & Newton Museum is located in the centre of Olney, and an electrical machine that Cowper used is displayed.  Opposite the museum is the excellent Olney Pancake Parlour, and Olney has its world famous pancake race.

Although he had considerable personal problems, Cowper was immensely creative. He lived in Olney for many years with his friend Mary Unwin (1724–1796). In 1791, Mary had a minor stroke, with a second stroke in 1792. ‘Her speech has been almost unintelligible from the moment when she was struck’ and ‘the use of her right hand and arm, she has entirely lost them’, Cowper wrote in a letter of 24 May 1792 to his cousin ‘my Dearest Coz’  Harriett Cowper (Lady Hesketh).

18th century machine for generating electricity

William Cowper’s electrical machine at the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney. (author’s photograph)

Cowper’s biographer William Hayley (1745-1820) had installed an electrical machine near Cowper, and the Oxford physician William Austin (1754-1793) had recommended its use. In the same letter, Cowper said that he had borrowed and used the machine on Mary’s paralysed arm ‘and we think that it has been of material service.’ By 3 June, Mary was improving, and Cowper reported to Hayley that she had ‘a better opinion of your spark eliciting faculties than of mine.’ Cowper noted on 4 June that he was ‘thankful that in so small a village as this that I should be able to furnish myself with a complete electrical apparatus.’

Mary made some recovery from her stroke following Cowper’s treatments, and in a letter of 28 June, Cowper describes the continuation of the treatment, believing that the treatments were responsible for the improvement. Mary lived for another four years.

Classic works

The classic book on electrotherapy is the 1855 De l’Électrisation localisée et de son application à la physiologie, à la pathologie et à la thérapeutique (Localised use of electricity in physiology, disease and therapy) by Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne (1806-1875), who promoted the science of electrophysiology. Duchenne illustrated the electrical treatment of muscles and recorded the changes following the electrical stimulation of paralytic muscular atrophy.

Cowper knew a local apothecary, who gave him a book by the Italian physicist, Tiberius Cavallo(s) (1749-1809), who ‘recommends gentle sparks and the fluid breathed from a wooden point, much rather than smarter sparks or shocks.’

Nineteenth century black & white line drawing of treatment using an electrical machine.

Electrical treatment using an electrical machine, from De l’Électrisation localisée (1855)

Paralysed and atrophic muscles may look more normal following electrical treatments; functional improvements are less likely to occur. However, the relationship between electricity and the body is complex, and previous generations, including Cowper and his group, were very impressed by the effects of electrotherapy.

During the 20th century, electrotherapy gradually passed out of use. Many of the conditions formerly treated with electricity were seen as psychological with a functional component. However, we can ask – should the use of electrotherapy in selected conditions be reconsidered since it was certainly effective in many conditions?

Adrian Thomas is a Visiting Professor at Canterbury Christ Church University where he teaches clinical reporting to radiographers, and he has a deep interest in the history of the radiological sciences. 

Further reading:

The definitive edition of Cowper’s letters is:  The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper: Volumes 1-4, 2011, Oxford University Press, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp.

The classic history of electrotherapy is Colwell, A.A. (1922) An Essay on the History of Electrotherapy and Diagnosis. William Heinemann, London.

A good recent study of Victorian electricity is: Morus, I.R. 2011. Shocking Bodies. Life, Death & Electricity in Victorian England. Stroud: The History Press.