Most of us are familiar with or have heard of electricity-based therapies. They are used in a wide range of medical disciplines: neurology, psychiatry, physical medicine, rehabilitation… Logically, we consider these techniques an advance of the modern world, because if electricity had not been discovered, they could not exist. It is true that electricity is something that humans have recently applied intensively, but not nature, which has been doing so and exhibiting its properties for millennia.
Ancient Greeks, among them Plato, Aristotle, or Plutarch, already “knew” about electricity, at least the one produced by the body of some fish, so powerful at times that the unfortunate person who suffered the spark could be stunned, narcotized. For this reason, they gave the name “narke” (the root of the term narcosis) to some species such as the electric rays (torpedos) or the electric catfish of the Nile (Malopterurus electricus).
However, as far as we know, it was not until 46 A.D. that the physician Scribonius Largus recommended applying the power of these fish to treat certain disorders and pains. This is the first record of electrotherapy in history. Specifically, Scribonius highlighted the benefits of torpedos’ electricity (and the numbness it generates) to alleviate headaches and gout. These recommendations had some acceptance by other physicians and healers, such as Dioscorides, who added another application: the discharges of these fish could also be useful to treat anal prolapse. However, some downplayed the importance of these findings. Galen, for example, claimed that he tried these treatments to heal headaches and anal prolapse without results. In any case, these electrotherapies continued to be used for many centuries afterwards in Europe and Africa.
Scribonius Largus left us the first written source on electrotherapy, but it is suspected that these remedies were already known by several North African tribes since at least the first Greek invasions. A knowledge that is still exhibited by many ethnic groups that use the electric properties of Malopterurus electricus in their therapies.
To learn more
Kellaway, P. (1946). The part played by electric fish in the early history of bioelectricity and electrotherapy. Bull. Hist. Med. 40(2), 112-137.