Friday, December 19, 2008

Benjamin Franklin, Biological Physicist

I recently finished reading H. W. Brands' biography The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. (Actually, I listened to the book on tape while walking my dog Suki each evening.) I enjoy history and biography, but was not expecting to find any biological physics in the book.

Wrong. Late in Franklin's life, during his years in France, he played a role in a bizarre episode related to biomagnetism. Brands writes:
"Friedrich Anton Mesmer had studied medicine at Vienna during the period when Franklin's electrical experiments were becoming known on the European continent. Like many of Franklin's readers from the Poor Richard days, Mesmer believed in astrology; having learned from Franklin how lightning carried celestial energy to earth, he easily concluded that electricity provided an invisible but pervasive fluid that linked the stars to human lives. Unfortunately for both his scientific theory and his medical practice, electricity was unpleasant to patients, sometimes violently so. But Mesmer was resourceful, and substituting magnetism for electricity as the invisible transmitter, he developed a flourishing practice stroking patients with magnets. In time he dispensed with the magnets, replying simply on his own powers of persuasion to release the therapeutic effects of 'animal magnetism'...

In March 1784 King Louis appointed a committee of the Paris faculty of medicine to investigate; the distinguished members included Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who would add a word to several languages by his advocacy of the use of a swift and thereby comparatively humane decapitation machine. The doctors decided they needed help from the Academy of Sciences, whereupon Louis added five members, including the great chemist Lavoisier--who would meet his end at the device endorsed by Dr. Guillotin--and the eminent American, Dr. Franklin...

Franklin and the commissioners filed their report [on Mesmer's activities], with his name heading the list of signatures. A public version was hurried into print, and twenty thousand copies were snatched up. The report declared the claims of animal magnetism unproven; such mitigation of symptoms as appeared were due to the customary causes of self-delusion and ordinary remission."
I am not too surprised that Mesmer was able to fool so many for so long in the 1700's, long before Faraday, Maxwell, and others provided a complete understanding of electricity and magnetism, and well before the importance of well controlled, double-blind medical studies was appreciated. What is disturbing about this tale is that similar hoaxes go on today, at a time when we know so much more about bioelectricity and biomagnetism, and put much more effort into conducting careful clinical trials (for specific examples, see Bob Park's book Voodoo Science). Such non-scientific activities have a striking similarity to Mesmer's claims.

How do we combat such nonsense? Knowledge and education is the only way I know. Hopefully readers of the 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will be in position to more effectively detect and expose non-scientific claims. Like Franklin, we must encourage educational and civic measures designed to separate exciting and important scientific developments from unfortunate and unsupportable scientific frauds.

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