An account of electricity and the body, revised

In the early hours of Independence Day 2018, I found myself awake. I attributed it to jet lag: I had just returned from South Africa, where my wife – like me, a doctor – and I worked with a medical charity. I decided to get up and drink a cup of strong coffee. Within minutes, my heart was racing. I attributed this to the caffeine, but my heart rate continued to accelerate rapidly. I counted the beats on my watch: one hundred and eighty per minute, three times my resting rate. My chest tightened and my breathing became labored. I tried to be calm by telling myself no, it wasn’t a heart attack, just the exhaustion from the trip and the high of the coffee. But the symptoms got worse and I broke out in a sweat. I woke up my wife, who took my pulse and called an ambulance. As I lay in the ambulance, the siren blaring above me, I prayed that I wouldn’t die before I went to the emergency room.

The first few days of July would be a perilous time to be in the hospital, as this is when new residents begin their training. But, despite the early hour, an emergency doctor was present, who quickly instructed the medical team to place intravenous catheters in my arms, draw blood for tests, attach oxygen pins to my nostrils. and perform an electrocardiogram. She said the problem appeared to be something called atrioventricular reentrant nodal tachycardia. I knew what it meant. Our heartbeat begins with an electrical impulse coming from the atria, the upper chambers of the heart, and then passing to the ventricles, causing them to contract. In a normal heart, there is a delay before the next heartbeat begins; in my heart, electrical impulses returned immediately through a malevolent channel. My ventricles were receiving constant signals to contract, leaving little time for blood to enter and be pumped to my tissues.

Despite this, my blood pressure had yet to drop to an alarming level. So the first attempt to slow my heart down was to make myself contract my abdominal muscles, in a so-called Valsalva maneuver, which can help control irregular heartbeats by stimulating the vagus nerve. But several tries made no difference, and my breathing became more labored. The attending physician then explained to me that she would give me, via my IV, a dose of adenosine, a drug that stops the flow of electrical signals in the heart. My heart would stop beating completely. Hopefully, she said, it would restart on its own, at a normal rate. Of course, adenosine might not work. She didn’t develop, but I knew: the next step would be to try and restart my heart with electroshock paddles.

A dose of adenosine did nothing. But shortly after a second dose, the heart monitor suddenly went silent, and I glanced at the screen: a flat line. My heart had stopped. I had a strange feeling of unhappiness, a visceral feeling that something horrible was going to happen. But then there was a kind of thud, like I had been kicked in the chest. My heart began to beat, slowly, with force. In a few minutes, the frequency and rhythm returned to normal. The electric pump in my chest was feeding blood again to my body.

Timothy J. Jorgensen, professor of radiological medicine at Georgetown University, writes in his new book, “Spark” (Princeton), that “life is nothing but electric”. In our daily life, seeing lightning in the sky or plugging our devices into wall outlets, we tend to overlook this fact. Jorgensen’s goal, in this chatty and broad tour of the role of electricity in biology and medicine, is to show us that every experience we have of ourselves – of the senses of sight, of smell and from sound to our movements and thoughts – depends on electrical impulses.

It starts with amber, the material with which humans probably first attempted to harness electricity for medical purposes. Amber is the fossilized resin of prehistoric trees; when rubbed, it charges with static electricity. It can attract small pieces of material, such as lint, and emit shock, and these properties make it magical. Amber pendants dating from 12,000 BC. In the era of recorded history, accounts of the use of amber abound. The ancient Greeks massaged the sick with it, believing, writes Jorgensen, that its “forces of attraction would remove pain from their bodies,” and this is the Greek word for amber—electron– this gives us a whole vocabulary for electrical properties. In first century Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that wearing amber around the neck could prevent throat ailments and even mental illness. The Romans also used the non-static electricity of the torpedo fish, a name for various species of electric rays, to deliver shock to patients with diseases such as headaches and hemorrhoids.

Even in the 16th century, the eminent Swiss physician Paracelsus called amber “a noble medicine for the head, stomach, intestines and other ailments of the tendons”. Soon after, English scientist William Gilbert discovered that other substances, such as wax and glass, could generate a charge if you rub them, and a German named Otto von Guericke created a crude electrostatic generator. But there was no reliable way to study electricity until the invention of the Leyden jar in 1745. (The jar takes its name from the town where a Dutch scientist developed it, although a German scientist made the same breakthrough independently around the same time.) The Leyden jar built up charges of static electricity and then released them as an electric current, and Jorgensen does not skimp on the narrative of the experiments bizarre that followed. In 1747, a French clergyman named Jean-Antoine Nollet demonstrated the effect of electricity on the human body for King Louis XV:

He had 180 men of the King’s Royal Guard standing in line holding hands. He then instructed the soldier at one end of the line to use his free hand to touch the top of a fully electrified Leyden jar. Instantly, the 180 men in line staggered in the violent shock they felt. The king was impressed.

For his next experiment, Nollet outdid himself, performing the same procedure with a chain of seven hundred Carthusian monks.

The discovery that electricity not only shocks the body, but is part of its powers in the eighties, when Italian scientist Luigi Galvani conducted a series of experiments in which electric current produced movement in severed thighs of frogs. Galvani attributed this discovery to what he called “animal electricity” and for some time the study of such phenomena was known as galvanism. (Meanwhile, Galvani’s rival, Alessandro Volta, invented the battery, giving the volt its name.) Perhaps the most famous galvanic demonstration was conducted by Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, in January 1803, in London. In front of an audience, he applied electrodes to the corpse of a man, George Foster, who had just been hanged in Newgate Prison for the murder of his wife and child. Jorgensen quotes a report from Newgate Calendar, a popular post that relayed gruesome details about the executions:

When the process was first applied to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to tremble and the adjacent muscles were horribly twisted and one eye was opened. In the next part of the process, the right hand was lifted and squeezed, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

Some of the onlookers believed Aldini was trying to bring Foster back to life, Jorgensen writes. He goes on to note that Aldini’s work aroused the interest of the English writer and political philosopher William Godwin, who knew many researchers in electricity. Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” (1818), which ultimately gave us the image of Boris Karloff as the monster with electrodes sticking out of his neck. This image is pure Hollywood invention – Shelley’s monster doesn’t run on electricity – but the book mentions galvanism elsewhere and it’s likely that the popular, bastard version of the tale brings out something latent in the original.

As interest in electricity spread, there was a medical craze for electrical treatments, to treat everything from headaches to bad thoughts or sexual difficulties. Jorgensen tries out the Toepler Influence Machine, a device dating from around 1900, shortly before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 put an end to a colorful era of electro-quackery. The machine generates electricity using a set of rotating glass discs, operated by a crank, to produce what has been called “static breeze” therapy. The electrotherapist who uses the machine measures the voltage by bringing two brass balls together as sparks fly between them. Then, with the flip of a switch, electricity is directed to Jorgensen’s head:


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