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Medical Electricity and Madness in the 18th Century: the legacies of Benjamin Franklin and Jan Ingenhousz

Benjamin Franklin had at least two accidents that resulted in electricity passing through his brain. In addition, he witnessed a patient's similar accident and performed an experiment that showed how humans could endure shocks to the head without serious ill effects, other than amnesia. Jan Ingenhousz, Franklin's Dutch-born medical correspondent better known for his discovery of photosynthesis, also had a serious accident that sent electricity though his head and, in a letter to Franklin, he described how he felt unusually elated the next day. During the 1780s, Franklin and Ingenhousz encouraged leading French and English electrical "operators" to try shocking the heads of melancholic and other deranged patients in their wards. Although they did not state that they were responding to Ingenhousz's and Franklin's suggestions, Birch, Aldini, and Gale soon did precisely what Ingenhousz and Franklin had suggested. These practitioners did not appear to induce convulsions in their mentally ill patients, but they still reported notable successes.