The Subtil Medium Prov’d by Richard Lovett, 1756. Presented by Canon Blake.
Throughout the eighteenth-century electricity, which was understood to be a fluid, became the focus of widespread experimentation. The aims of these experiments were to understand the nature of electricity and to utilise its properties.
Richard Lovett (1692-1780) was a lay clerk of Worcester Cathedral during the 18th century who experimented with electricity. He wrote The Subtill Medium Prov’d, published in 1765 in London. He later wrote The Electrical Philosopher, published in 1774. The Subtil Medium Prov’d, written by way of dialogue, contains Lovett’s theories and experimental work on the medical use of electricity, a reflection of the Enlightenment era. More specifically, the book sets out Lovett’s reasoning behind his faith in electricity as a treatment and cure for bodily disorders. It is an insight into an early form of electric shock therapy, a common treatment practiced in asylums and hospitals until the early twentieth-century.
Lovett aim was to educate and interest others about the medical use of electricity. Unlike many early medical and philosophical texts, the book is written in English instead of Latin or Greek, which made the book more accessible. Lovett justifies this decision stating, ‘Truths, Facts and demonstrative Experiments are no Slaves to Latin and Greek, whatever Men are’. (ref: to the reader)
The theoretical side of Lovett’s work draws upon the work of earlier philosophers – namely Newton and Descartes – and he frequently refers to these figures throughout. Lovett claimed it is through extensive experimentation and reasoning that lead him to make a significant contribution to the understanding the ‘wonderful Phænomenon’ of electricity.
Lovett’s electrical experiments put into practice the theory that the source of life – provided by God – was a fluid, a subtle matter or electrical Æther that flowed throughout the body. This Æther, akin to a spirit was also believed to be the restorer of health. Lovett argued that illnesses and disorders were the result of breathing vitiated air, placing focus on the respiratory organs. Health and vitality were allegedly restored to the human body when fresh air, rich in electrical Æther was taken in. His conviction in electricity as an effective medical treatment was based upon this theory. Electricity – administered in short shocks – restored health by replenishing this Æther to the body of the patient with a disorder, caused by a lack of electrical Æther in the body. As a result, the ‘whole animated Machine continues to live’.
This subtle matter or electrical Æther as discussed by Lovett is the same as:
‘The elementary Fire of the Ancient’s,
The Materia Subtilis [subtle matter] of Des cartes, [and]
The Æther or elastic subtil Medium of Sir Isaac Newton.’
Newton defined Æther as a subtle matter finer and more fluid than air. Descartes referred to it as a subtle fluid within bodies that took the shape of whichever body it occupied.
Influenced by others experimenting with electricity during the eighteenth century, Lovett used a condensing-phial to store static electricity. The condensing-phial was modelled on Musschenbroek’s Leyden jar, invented earlier in the 1740’s. The phial consisted of a glass jar, lined with gold leaf and coated in lead. It had a connecting wire running along the outside, connected to a leading wire that ran through a cork at the top down to the bottom of the phial. Once charged with the electrical Æther, the user was able to administer electric shocks at will. This was done via an iron rod attached to the phial. The sparks given off during experimentation were interpreted as a perceptible form of the invisible life giving fluid, electrical Æther.
Lovett conducted many controversial experiments on his patients in Worcester. He used electricity as a treatment for both mental and physical illnesses. These included; headaches, sciatica, rheumatic pain, cramp, hysteria, fits and epilepsy. Treatments mainly consisted of administering electric shocks to the area of the body affected.
Some examples of particular cases are:
Case 1. – A servant of Mr. Tilt of Bromsgrove who was stricken with a violent headache for almost two weeks was given ‘a few light Shocks in the Head’ half an hour apart. Afterwards the patient claimed to be cured.
Case 5. – Mrs. Higgins of Lich-street, Worcester, was treated with electric shocks for a hysterical disorder and coldness in the feet.
Case 10. – Anne Thomason of Little Fish Street, Worcester too fearful to be treated by a surgeon was treated with electricity for a fistula near the inner corner of her eye.
Case 18. – Elisabeth Bund from the parish of Powick was treated with electricity for severe fits.
Case 22. – John Webb of Fish street, Worcester, was treated with electric shocks for gout in his feet
Case 27. – Elizabeth Taylor of Hennicks-hill near Worcester was treated for a severe headache. Her case had apparently baffled the efforts of medicine for eleven years and yet she was cured by means of electricity.
Lovett considered his experiments with electricity and the results he achieved to be significant. He believed that the experiments he conducted – possible due to the invention of the Leyden jar to store the static electricity – provided proof for the theory of electrical Æther. This, he believed, would have altered the theories and conclusions of those upon whom his work is based.
‘[I]t is my humble Opinion, that, were those great Philosophers still living, to see the wonderful Experiments which are made in Electricity, they would not be so tenacious of their former Opinions, as to think there was not sufficient Reason, now, for altering many of their Sentiments, how differently foever their present Disciples or Devotees many think or act.’