Edward Bancroft’s “Torporific Eels”

Edward Bancroft was a medical apprentice in Connecticut before running off to Guiana in 1763. While in South America, he practiced medicine and collected material for a lengthy book on the region, which he published after he settled in London. Bancroft’s Essay (1769) contains a description of the “torporific eels” found in the warm rivers of Guiana, along with a series of experiments suggesting that the eel’s powers are electrical. It also calls for studies to determine whether saltwater torpedo rays might demonstrate the same properties, which Bancroft expected would be the case. Today, Bancroft is best remembered for serving Benjamin Franklin and the American delegation in France during the War of Independence, and for being a double agent. But what this colorful man wrote about the South American eels helped to make an early case for animal electricity and stimulated Franklin to encourage John Walsh to conduct his landmark electrical experiments on torpedoes and electric eels in the 1770s. These efforts led to new way of thinking about the physiology of the nervous and muscular systems, even in nonspecialized fish.