Electrotherapy – a case study in nineteenth- and twentieth-century science, technology and medicine

Dr John Senior, Linacre College

Electrotherapy was emblematic of science and progress in the late Victorian era yet innovators and medical electricians faced a sceptical profession. The course will cover the strategies deployed and evidenced adduced both for and against electrotherapy’s legitimisation:

Course objectives

The aim of this course is to examine the manifold uses of electrotherapy and the strategies of its legitimisation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In its heyday in the late Victorian era, electrotherapy was utilised for a myriad of neurological and psychiatric disorders. By exploiting the prestige of science and the numinous quality of technology, medical electricians translated the protean forces of nature into an emblem of medical modernity. Later on, however, the spread of urban networks of power and the introduction of electrical appliances into the home had lent an aura of mundanity to the speciality. The discovery of radiation and X-rays towards the turn of the century was a watershed in electrotherapy’s disaggregation as other modalities of the electromagnetic spectrum began to be deployed in the physician’s armentarium and electrotherapy began to be challenged by psychoanalysis in the treatment of shell shock in WW1. Such developments linked broader debates between medical technology, medical practice, medical professionalisation and alternative medicine. Throughout the course there will be an opportunity to discuss the social meaning of electricity and its diverse and often incompatible associations with all aspects of society – ‘quackery’, popular entertainment, industry, communications and even capital punishment. The issue of whether the implementation of emerging electrical technologies led to a kind of industrialising process in medicine, of patient reification, standardisation, treatment in factory-like assembly lines, and deskilled assistants will be examined in light of current debates about technological determinism and social constructivism. How precisely can the differences between the technological and social determinants of change be defined?

Course requirements

There will eight class sessions every Tuesday from 1000hrs to 1200hrs at Linacre College, starting the first week of Hilary term. A preliminary meeting will be held on Tuesday of 8th week, Michaelmas term. Students will be required to prepare a short paper for every session and make a 10- to 15-minute presentation based upon it. Essay topics will be assigned at the previous meeting. Books and articles will be held on reserve at Linacre.

Key Texts