The Shocking Medical History of Electric Fish

How a piscine biomedical tradition stretching from Ancient Egypt to Colonial Guyana helped create the first batteries

Anteros, a freed slave of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, had decided it was a good day for a walk on the beach. Damp sand stuck to his bare feet as he walked, probably deep in great thoughts about matters that continue to remain a mystery, when he felt shock travel from his foot to the rest of his body, knocking him out of breath. The source of the shock, upon close inspection, was a live torpedo ray.

“Although he initially suffered an excruciating cramp, the pain he had long endured from what might have been gout miraculously disappeared,” writes historian of neuroscience Stanley Finger in his book Doctor Franklin’s Medicine.

As painful as it was, the jolt felt by Anteros would lead to the discovery of a treatment for countless diseases such as gout, arthritis, chronic headache, and more.

Long before man had discovered the scientific principles behind electricity, ancient physicians worked with electric current to treat physical and mental disorders such as epilepsy, vertigo and depression. The ancient world depended on nature for many needs now provided by technology, including sourcing electric current. Prior to the discovery of electricity, humans utilized electric fishes for all their ‘shocking’ needs.

A bas-relief at the Mastaba of Ti in Saqqara, Egypt, which depicts the nile catfish, one of the first identified electric fish.

Ancient Egyptians were familiar with one such shock generating fish, the Malapterurus electricus or the Nile catfish. Indigenous to the Nile, the first known depiction of the catfish can be found as a mural inscribed in 02750 BC on the tomb of the architect Ti in Saqqara, Egypt. Egyptians were not the only Mediterranean culture to depict the catfish in their art; a thousand miles north and 3000 years after the Saqqara mural , similar murals could also be found in the Roman city of Pompeii. While these murals fail to reveal whether the natives of the two lands used the electric fishes for any medical purposes, ancient Egyptian writings on papyri record the use of the electric fish to relieve pain 4700 years ago. Later records by Pliny and Plutarch also report the Egyptians' use of electric eel to treat joint pain, migraines, melancholy, and epilepsy.

A translation of Hippocrates' On Regimen, prescribing boiled torpedo as a treatment.

Approximately 2500 years following the first depiction of the Nile catfish, Hippocrates of Cos, the Greek ancient physician regarded as the "father of medicine" recorded in his book On Regimen medical uses of the Mediterranean electric ray (Torpedo torpedo) and Nile catfish for the treatment of headaches and arthritis.

In 45 AD, word of Anteros’ miraculously cured gout reached Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman Emperor Claudius. In his role as imperial philosopher — a Roman title roughly equivalent to scientist — he began experimenting and recording the medical benefits of the live torpedo fish, and suggested placing a live torpedo on the forehead to treat a headache.

An ancient Greek "fish plate", depicting a torpedo ray in the upper left.

“Headache even if it is chronic and unbearable, is taken away and remedied forever by a live torpedo placed on the spot which is in pain, until the pain ceases. As soon as the numbness has been felt, the remedy should be removed lest the ability to feel be taken away from the part,” observed Largus. “Moreover, several torpedoes of the same kind should be prepared because the cure, that is, the torpor which is a sign of betterment, is sometimes effective only after two or three (placement of individual fishes)”.

Noting Anteros’ experience with the live torpedo, Largus, for treating gout, recommended placing a live fish under the patient’s feet. He also opted to use the electric shock produced by a torpedo in the treatment of conversion hysteria.

Scribonius Largus was a reputable physician of his time, and upon learning of his methods, other medical practitioners soon began mirroring his methodology to treat their patients with electric currents of the torpedo fish. Some physicians, hoping to find a cure for paralysis, even attempted to shock their patients with the electric fish, possibly with the hope of artificially causing a muscle contraction or twitch to break through paralysis.

Three decades after Scribonius recorded the first known medical use of electric current in human history, Dioscorides of Anazarbus, a Greek military surgeon, added new treatments with application of the fish to the already existing list. In his book On the Material of Medicine, Dioscorides records a treatment for prolapsed anus that makes use of fish-derived electric current. For centuries, these remedies were applied by the succeeding physicians without enough attempts to confirm their worth as treatments.

Claudius Galenus Galen (130 AD - 201 AD), a Greek physician and surgeon in the Roman Empire, sought to confirm their efficacy by trying the great physicians' remedies on himself. He concluded:

“The whole torpedo, I mean the sea animal, is said by some to cure headache and reduce the prolapsed seat when applied. I indeed tried both of these and found neither to be true. Therefore, I thought that the torpedo should be applied alive to the person who has the headache, and that it could be that this remedy is anodyne and could free the patient from pain as do other remedies which numb the senses: this did so for the above-mentioned reason.”

However, Galen found one use for electric fish: he treated epilepsy with the application of the electric current from the torpedo.

From Galen's "Advice for an Epileptic Boy"

The ancient electro-therapeutic remedies continued to be practiced by physicians around the world until at least the eighteenth century. Steady experiments of electric discharge from the fish helped advance the medical treatments for disorders such as depression, seizures, arthritis, vertigo, headache and epilepsy.

When Middle Eastern and Asian physicians were treating diseases with the shock-inducing fishes, the Western world was just beginning to understand animal electricity. In the eighteenth century, a new field in the science of medicine emerged which was known as ‘medical electricity’. In 01745, Johann Gottlob Krüger (01715 - 01759), a professor of philosophy and medicine in Halle, Germany hypothesized that electricity, like all things, must have a utility and since it neither had any use in theology or jurisprudence, “there is obviously nothing left but medicine… The best effect would be found in paralyzed limbs.” Indeed, Krüger wasn’t entirely wrong in his hypothesis. A year later, Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, a student of Krüger, successfully treated patients suffering from contracted or otherwise disabled fingers using electrical currents. However, despite several promising results with different mechanisms like the Leyden jar, the first man-made capacitor, the use of electric current as a treatment did not immediately catch on among medical practitioners.

During the eighteenth century, scientists conducted a number of studies on the presence of electricity in nature - with a keen focus on its presence in animals such as the torpedo. By the late eighteenth century, Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy, explained via his famous frog experiment the animal body as the source of electricity. Since Galvani regarded animals as the source of electricity, death for him was an extinction of “that most noble electric fluid on which the motion, sensation, blood circulation, life itself seemed to depend.” For the anatomy professor, the idea that “death comes when blood ceases to circulate and to produce the electric fluid by friction in the brain and the nerves” was at least “plausible, if not true.”

Galvani’s explanation of death found reinforcement when western naturalists and researchers learned of the fish that was said to naturally produce shock equivalent or stronger than the man-made Leyden jar. It was John Walsh, a British scientist, who concluded after an in-depth investigation of the torpedo ray and the electric eel of Guyana that the shock produced by the aquatic animal was, in fact, electric in nature. Concluding his research, Walsh wrote:

“That the effect of the Torpedo appears to be absolutely Electrical, by formula its circuit through the same conductors with Electricity, for instance metals, animals and moist substance: and by being intercepted by the same non-conductors, for instance glass and sealing wax.”

Walsh’s research into electric fish, conducted between 01772 and 01775, is often considered as the dawn of electrophysiology.

However, electrophysiology wasn’t the only field to get its start from Walsh’s findings. Working along with Walsh on this research was the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. Focusing on the anatomical structure of the torpedo ray, Hunter found that the organs responsible for generating the electric current, as well as “picking up and directing” it in the fish, were formed by stacking numerous flat disks on “one above the other”. 30 years later, the Italian physicist Alexandro Volta borrowed the same stacked disc structure first identified by Hunter to create what was known initially as an “artificial electric organ,” a device that could provide constant electric current to a circuit. You may be more familiar with Volta’s invention as the first electrochemical battery.

The Voltaic Pile invented by Alexandro Volta – an artificial electric organ directly based on the electrical disks of the torpedo ray.

That artificial electric organ, which produced electricity by chemical means, was at first a breakthrough for the medical field as it allowed the use of Galvani's direct current to treat tumors and other diseases. In the centuries that have followed Galvani’s experiments, electrical current has proven to be far more than a medical curiosity. We have reinvented our daily lives around electricity, taking the currents that were once only found to exist in a few obscure fish species and allowing them to course through a global network of power and information.

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