Previous: 7 Species That Were Saved From Extinction
Next: How Can One Person's Blood Save 2 Million Babies?



View count:198,180
Last sync:2024-02-19 06:45


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "Victorian Pseudosciences: Shocking People Back to Health." YouTube, uploaded by SciShow, 5 December 2016,
MLA Inline: (SciShow, 2016)
APA Full: SciShow. (2016, December 5). Victorian Pseudosciences: Shocking People Back to Health [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (SciShow, 2016)
Chicago Full: SciShow, "Victorian Pseudosciences: Shocking People Back to Health.", December 5, 2016, YouTube, 05:19,
As 18th-century science and medicine brought properties of electricity to light, some Victorian doctors decided that putting sick people in a bathtub and shocking them might be a good idea.

Want more SciShow in person? We'll be at NerdCon: Nerdfighteria in Boston on February 25th and 26th! For more information, go to

Hosted by: Olivia Gordon
Support SciShow by becoming a patron on Patreon:
Dooblydoo thanks go to the following Patreon supporters -- we couldn't make SciShow without them! Shout out to James Harshaw, Kevin Bealer, Mark Terrio-Cameron, Patrick Merrithew, Accalia Elementia, Charles Southerland, Fatima Iqbal, Benny, Kyle Anderson, Tim Curwick, Will and Sonja Marple, Philippe von Bergen, Bryce Daifuku, Chris Peters, Kathy Philip, Patrick D. Ashmore, Charles George, Bader AlGhamdi.
Like SciShow? Want to help support us, and also get things to put on your walls, cover your torso and hold your liquids? Check out our awesome products over at DFTBA Records:
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?
Pseudo-Science and Society in 19th Century America (Book)
Electropharmacology (Book)
The Medical and Surgical Reporter
Notes on Galvanism and Faradism (Book)

Image Sources:,_according_to_the_circulation_of_the_blood,_and_all_the_modern_discoveries._Publickly_demonstrated_at_the_theater_in_the_Royal_Garden_at_Paris_(1703)_(18194488195).jpg,_oil-painting.jpg,_X-ray_in_eye_surgery,_X-ray_in_dentistry,_and_medico-legal_aspect_of_the_X-ray_(1912)_(14757090285).jpg
Olivia: Say you show up at your doctor's office with some sniffles and a really sore throat. You'd probably expect them to prescribe you some medicine, or tell you to rest.

But what if the doctor handed you some metal rods, hooked them up to a generator, and sent an electric current through your body to make a spasm? Not your typical doctor's appointment, right?

Well, using electricity to try and cure a lot of medical problems, or electropathy, was actually pretty common in the mid-1800s in Victorian England. The only problem? These treatments did not work.

See, electropathic devices were based on pseudoscience, or misleading ideas that people believed at the time, even though they weren't very well researched. 18th-century physicians were learning about human and animal anatomy, but they basically had no grasp of how electricity affected living bodies.

The Italian scientist Luigi Galvani was experimenting with dissected frogs, and he found that if he touched two different kinds of metals to their legs, it would make their muscles twitch.

Galvani thought the muscles moved because of "animal electricity" stored within the frog. But the physicist Alessandro Volta realized it was the metals creating the electric circuit, and he eventually used that idea to invent the first electric battery.

Soon, scientists were experimenting with electric generators, to figure out what they could do with this exciting new technology, including how electricity might affect the human body.

In the mid-1800s, some well-intentioned physicians tried a kind of electropathic therapy called galvanism, after Galvani. Basically, they ran currents of electricity through the bodies of some patients to try to relieve pain or cure diseases. One strategy was the hydroelectric bath, where patients would lay in warm water with an electric current passing through it... which was just about as safe as it sounds.

Some patients reported feeling a tingling sensation, but others were accidentally burned, or even fatally electrocuted because of badly-insulated tubs or high voltage currents. Then there was the magneto electric machine. Where patients would hold one metal electrode in each hand while the operator turned a crank so that the machine shocked them.

Sometimes a doctor would even hold an electrode while the patient held the other hoping to transfer "good health" as the electric current passed between their bodies. Electricity was just seen as this mysterious, miraculous new thing. So even with all the hazards and without any biological benefit, the Victorian public still got super stoked on the idea of using electricity as medicine.

Soon all sorts of bogus inventions started popping up in advertisements and medical journals. In 1885, ads for the Electropathic Belt claimed that it could generate a gentle electric current in the wearer's body, and treat a bunch of conditions like paralysis and gout or indigestion. But it was just made of stacks of zinc and copper plates that actually didn't generate electricity, so people were paying to wear hunks of metal on their body.

This was just one of countless other devices from corsets to hairbrushes that claimed to harness electrical healing powers while doing absolutely nothing. Within a couple of decades, scientists of the time started to denounce electropathy and all these ridiculous inventions. There just wasn't any concrete evidence that electric currents could relieve pain, and people probably just wanted to believe these devices helped. So the fad of electropathy was over.

Nowadays, scientists are still studying how electricity and our bodies interact. Which is called electrophysiology. And therapy's like TENS are the closest thing we have to Victorian electropathic treatments.

In this particular therapy, patients stick electrodes on their skin to let a weak current travel through their tissues, stimulating nerve cells and mild muscle contractions. All that nerve stimulation supposedly disrupts pain signals to your brain. But scientific studies that have tested TENS as a therapy are mostly negative or inconclusive.

Physicians have also developed life-saving medical technologies because of how electrical signals control our muscles. Who can forget the good ol' defibrillator?

Your heart has specialized muscle cells that send electrical signals to make different chambers contract and pump blood regularly. That's your heartbeat. Sometimes those electrical signals can happen too fast, or slowly, or irregularly, so you muscle cells start contracting irregularly, which is called fibrillation.

Defibrillators are made of an electric supply unit and electrodes that are either pressed to a person's chest or inserted into a person's heart. And these devices can generate a high voltage electric current to shock the heart muscle cells into resetting to a normal rhythm again.

In a really broad sense, Victorian scientists were kind of right, you can use electricity to save human lives. But just shocking patients or having them wear random metal devices isn't the way to produce miraculous medical results.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you wanna help support this show go to, and don't forget to go to and subscribe.