No. 3152: ELISHA PERKINS

by Andy Boyd

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Today, a cautionary tale. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Born in 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut, Elisha Perkins began his career as a physician under the tutelage of his well-respected father. But Perkins himself would go on to earn the contempt of his peers.

Perkins's early career was respectable. In addition to building a successful medical practice, he generously supported higher education and opened his home as a hospital for those with disabilities. But in his mid-fifties his life took a turn.

Perkins claimed to observe that during surgery contact with metallic instruments caused muscle tissue to contract. He tried other materials but found no similar response. He continued experimentation, eventually developing what came to be called tractors: two three-inch long metal rods, each rounded at one end and tapered to a point at the other.


Perkins tractors   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

So why all the fuss about muscle contraction? Perkins believed, or at least professed to believe, that contraction was the result of muscles ridding themselves of toxic electrical fluid. He therefore surmised that by simply waving the tractors over afflicted body parts, he could cure rheumatism, gout, epileptic fits, and the pain from headaches, toothaches, sprains, burns, tumors, and all other sources.

Word of tractors began to spread with testimony after testimony of their miraculous powers. As Perkins toured major U.S. cities he was met with enthusiasm. President George Washington purchased a set of tractors for his family, as did the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Perkins's invention made its way to Europe, where surgeons at the esteemed royal Frederiks Hospital in Denmark embraced its curative powers. In London, the Perkinsian Institute was established for the treatment of those who couldn't afford tractors.

Of course, for his many pro-tractor enthusiasts Perkins had equally many detractors. Dr. John Haygarth of England performed one of the first blinded experiments, where one group of subjects was treated with tractors and another with objects shaped like tractors but made of something other than metal. Cure rates, as reported by the subjects, were the same. Haygarth published his findings in a paper entitled On the Imagination as a Cause & as a Cure of Disorders of the Body, a paper that helped establish what we now call the placebo effect.


John Haygarth   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Back home, Perkins was expelled from the Connecticut Medical Society for "disgraceful ... delusive quackery." Perkins died less than five years after the whole affair began, though his son would carry on his father's work as it was slowly crushed under the weight of the truth.


Treatment with tractors   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Perkins's tale is a reminder that not all creativity is good creativity. Hucksters of all walks demonstrate remarkable ingenuity. It's up to us to separate the deceptions from the truth.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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William Snow Miller. "Elisha Perkins and His Metallic Tractors." Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 8:1 (1935): 41-57. See also: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2601307. Accessed December 5, 2017.

Elisha Perkins. From the Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha_Perkins. Accessed December 5, 2017.