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Benjamin Franklin’s
Enlightened Medicine
If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
Or do things worth the writing.
—Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1738
n 1784 an experiment was conducted in a sunbathed garden in Passy, a
beautiful village along the Seine River, then just a few miles outside Paris. It
involved a suggestible twelve-year-old boy with an unspecified medical disorder, his well-connected physician, a select group of observers, and some
well-cared-for apricot trees.
While the unnamed boy remained inside a nearby house, his distinguished physician, Charles Deslon (or d’Eslon), proceeded to “magnetize”
a single apricot tree in the garden. He then walked behind the other
observers, where he would be hidden from the boy’s sight. He was allowed,
however, to “direct his cane and his countenance toward the tree, in order to
augment the action of the magnetism.”1
After these things had been done, his young patient was brought out of
the house with his eyes covered. The “blind” protocol was used to ensure
that any overt movements or more subtle cues from the experimenters would
not influence him. The boy was then instructed to embrace a number of trees
for about two minutes each, knowing only that the physician he greatly
trusted had magnetized one of them. He was expected to experience strange
feelings throughout his body when he touched the treated tree, but not the
“neutral” trees. And this, his physician believed, would allow him to identify
the single magnetized tree.
The experiment, as strange as it may seem to us today, was a clever test of
a medical theory that had the backing of many practitioners, aristocrats,
writers, and ordinary people late in the eighteenth century. But it was also a
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theory that had thunderous opposition, particularly among the members of
France’s leading scientific and medical societies.
Franz Anton Mesmer, who held a medical degree, had developed the theory before he had been forced out of conservative Vienna. He maintained
that an invisible fluid, which he called animal magnetism, pervades the cosmos, much like Isaac Newton’s well-accepted but invisible gravitational
force. Mesmer further claimed that this magnetic force could affect all sorts
of objects, from animals to trees, and even the human body.
The part of Mesmer’s theory that was of greatest concern to the medical
community stemmed from his contention that he could manipulate this
newly discovered, invisible, magnetic force. Not only could he “magnetize”
nonmetallic objects, he could employ the force and even these magnetized
objects to cure sick bodies. During the eighteenth century, it was widely
believed that blockages caused disorders, a theory that was applied to
headaches, palsies, and weak vision, as well as urinary or circulatory problems. In Mesmer’s mind, because all diseases shared a common etiology, all
could be treated with a single cure, namely the skilled manipulation of the
force he called animal magnetism.
Mesmer maintained that the cure he sought was preceded by a “crisis,”
meaning a noticeable turning point. A common example of a crisis was a
fever that peaked before suddenly breaking. But for Mesmer and his disciples, including practitioner Charles Deslon who magnetized the apricot tree
in Passy, the crisis was often more dramatic. Many of the patients they
treated tended to go into convulsions and even pass out, which brings us back
to the boy in the garden. Deslon had chosen him for the experiment because
he had been so sensitive to animal magnetism when treated in his clinic.
After a minute at the first tree, which was twenty-seven feet from the
treated one, the boy began to perspire, cough up phlegm, and complain of
head pain. The second tree was nine feet farther away from the magnetized
tree, and here he felt dazed and stupefied, while his headache worsened. At
the third tree, his signs and symptoms increased, and he stated that he
believed he had to be approaching the magnetized tree, even though it was
now almost forty feet away. Finally, at “the fourth tree, one which had not
been rendered the object of the procedure, and at a distance of about twentyfour feet from the tree which had, the boy fell into a crisis, he fainted, his
limbs stiffened, and he was carried on to a plot of grass, where Deslon hurried to his side and revived him.”2
Benjamin Franklin was among the eyewitnesses to this well thought out
test of Mesmer’s theory. In fact, the quotations describing the experiment
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and boy’s crisis were taken from a detailed report that Franklin helped write.
Moreover, the experiment took place on the estate on which he was living
in 1784, while serving the newly independent United States as minister to
The choice of location for this test in a series that included many other
tests like it was by no means coincidental. Franklin had been asked to serve as
head of a royal commission hastily called for by Louis XVI to evaluate Mesmer’s claims. But because gout and a large bladder stone limited Franklin’s
mobility, the commissioners agreed to do some of the experiments where the
distinguished foreigner was in residence.
Franklin and his fellow commissioners ultimately concluded that Mesmer
and Deslon were partly right. Mesmerism did cure some people, but their
improvements had nothing to do with Mesmer’s proposed physical force.
The occasional cures documented by Mesmer and Deslon were largely the
result of suggestion, and the subjects were very gullible people.
Historians believe that a fair number of the men and women cured by the
mesmerists suffered from mental disorders, particularly hysteria (professionals now use the term “conversion disorder”). Today, hysteria is thought
of as a psychological problem. But to Franklin and his contemporaries, it was
a disorder that actually affected the physical machinery of the body.
In just about every way, Benjamin Franklin, although seventy-eight years
old at the time, was the ideal person to lead the royal commission and to sign
his name above the others on the Rapport des Commissaires Chargés par le Roi
de l’Examen du Magnétisme Animal. Having dined with Mesmer and apparently watched him treat some patients, and having read some of his most
important writings, Franklin was probably more knowledgeable about Mesmer’s theory and claims than any of the other commissioners.
Franklin was also highly respected by all parties for his great intellect and
his honesty, and he was the only commissioner who was a foreigner, and
therefore not dependent on French governmental support for his position or
professional survival. Further, Franklin was a skilled natural philosopher
(the old term for a person who studies the laws of nature) and the world’s
leading authority on another pervasive force that had become faddish in
eighteenth-century medicine, namely electricity.
But beyond these credentials and others that he possessed, Franklin had
been deeply involved with health and the healing arts since his youth. This
was not an intermittent interest. He had helped to shape medicine prior to
this time, and he had earned the respect of academic physicians, bedside
practitioners, and others involved in the healing arts throughout the world.
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The French government officials who asked him to be on the Mesmer commission knew this, as did Lavoisier, Guillotin, and the other commissioners
that served with him. This book will explore this important but often overlooked legacy—Benjamin Franklin’s many medical contributions, as well as
how he fit into the turbulent world of eighteenth-century medicine.3
Benjamin Franklin did not have any formal medical training—in fact, he had
very little schooling. But this was not a barrier to entering and practicing
medicine, or conducting medical experiments, in North America in the eighteenth century. In Franklin’s America, the mindset about “physicians,” college degrees, and regulations was not at all what it is today. In fact, only
about 5 to 10 percent of the 3,500 Americans who practiced medicine for a
living had college diplomas when the War of Independence started.4
One reason for the paucity of degree-bearing physicians during the colonial period was that North Americans did not even have a medical school
prior to 1765. Another was that the three major medical schools in Great
Britain (Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge) graduated only a few dozen
students each year. Moreover, most physicians that graduated abroad aspired
to enter “polite society.” The smallish cities in the New World could not
rival London when it came to establishing elite medical practices befitting
proper, well-attired gentlemen, who left surgeries and drug dispensing to the
lower sort. Indeed, most colonial physicians had such a hard time supporting
themselves in medicine that they also performed occasional surgeries and
derived additional income by selling pharmaceuticals as tradesmen.5
The observations of some degree-bearing physicians who ventured
across the Atlantic did not help. William Douglass, a Scotsman with a degree
from Utrecht, viewed colonial medical care as so “perniciously bad” when
he arrived in Boston in 1718 that he advised people “to let nature . . . take her
course. Frequently there is more danger from the practitioner than the distemper,” he warned, “but sometimes nature gets the better of the doctor and
the patient recovers.”6
Douglass was clearly an elitist; he firmly believed that he could offer his
patients better treatment than could a practitioner without a college diploma.
Yet the absence of university-trained physicians was not quite the unmitigated
disaster he made it out to be. First, physicians like him tended to deal with only
the small segment of society that could afford high medical fees. Second, some
physicians obtained their European diplomas with very little formal study; for
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some institutions, a candidate could even send money and submit a thesis in
absentia. And third, medicine was essentially a theoretical or academic subject
at the great European universities, whereas the immediate need in the rugged
North American colonies was for practitioners with hands-on skills.
The apprenticeship system was especially well suited to the needs of the
colonists. As paying apprentices under established practitioners, aspiring
young men learned how to interpret signs and symptoms, perform simple
surgeries, and prescribe medicines. The apprenticeships could vary
markedly in length, quality, and quantity. But seven years with a respected
practitioner meant a lot in Boston or Philadelphia, where a graduate of the
widely-accepted system would still be addressed as “doctor,” even without
the college degree.
In contrast to England, with its guilds and laws, there was no real regulation of physicians or surgeons in Britain’s North American colonies prior to
the 1760s.7 Hence, others with less training also entered the highly competitive marketplace.8 To quote William Smith from 1757: “The profession is
under no kind of regulation. Any man at his pleasure sets up for Physician,
Apothecary, and Chirurgen [surgeon].”9
Clergymen were among these other participants, and they had history on
their side.10 Men of the cloth had long participated in the healing arts, in part
because illnesses had long been associated with sinning and demons, but also
because they were willing to treat the poor. Reverend Cotton Mather, whose
ideas helped to shape Franklin’s life in medicine, once contended that preachers should play the leading role in colonial medicine because they were the
most learned men in America. Opined Mather, “Tis an angelical connection
when the ministers who do the pleasure of Christ shall also be the physicians
and Raphaels unto their people.”11
Historians estimate that approximately 10 percent of the practicing “physicians” in the colonies were trained as preachers when Mather penned these
words in 1710.12 Mather, however, was by no means typical of the group—he
was one of the most important figures in colonial medicine.13 He avidly read
medical tracts, published letters and pamphlets, and tried new methods. He
also wrote the first major treatise on medicine from North America, The
Angel of Bethesda, which was completed in 1724 but not published in his lifetime. Nevertheless, some of Mather’s writings were inundated with his deep
religious beliefs about supernatural forces and prayer, which did not endear
him to his more earthly contemporaries, including physician William Douglass, who assailed him for meddling in things he knew little about, and which
bothered Franklin, whose approach to medicine was decidedly secular.
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The Reverend Cotton Mather (1663–1728) of Boston, a major figure in colonial
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Apothecaries also provided medical advice at this time.14 For people with
limited funds, going directly to a drug dispenser was one way to avoid paying an additional physician’s fee. Astrologers likewise offered medical
advice, a fact not lost on Franklin and the other almanac makers who were
forced to deal with the pseudo-science.15 And for hands-on procedures, midwives helped deliver babies, and barbers performed simple procedures,
including bloodletting with their razors.
In addition to the marketplace healers who practiced for a living, many
landowners, shopkeepers, farmers, trappers, and housewives took care of
their own and tried to help their neighbors. George Washington gave medicines and routinely practiced the ancient art of bloodletting on his family and
his slaves at Mount Vernon. Although he had some medical books, almost all
of his medical knowledge was acquired by observation and from experience.
Thomas Jefferson also took care of himself and his household, unless the
matter required expert help.
In democratic America, even the most ordinary people, including a high
percentage of women, felt that they had as much right to practice medicine
as any physician, including the erudite Douglass. For these individuals, most
diseases, bites, and injuries could be adequately treated with some basic medical knowledge, a few stock remedies, and a good dose of common sense.
Whether in rural or urban areas, most medicine started in the home, as evidenced by the fact that self-help medical guides, including those that
Franklin published, were among the best sellers of the day.
Although the average citizen in Franklin’s era cared little about academic
debates concerning whether the hidden machinery of the body worked in one
way or another, many broadly accepted treatments stemmed from highly
speculative theoretical formulations. In this context, the ancient Greek theory of bodily fluids or “humors” was still very much alive at the bedside,
although not necessarily in its original guise.16
The Greeks living more than two thousand years earlier had based their
medicine on the idea that the body contains four basic humors: yellow bile,
blood, phlegm, and black bile. They associated these fluids with the qualities
hot and dry, hot and moist, cold and moist, and cold and dry, respectively.
They contended that imbalances among the humors could make a person
feel ill. Hence, the sick were treated with “opposites” to restore equilibrium.
The continued use of heat and certain herbs that might make a patient with
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the chills feel warmer can be traced to this theory. So can drawing blood
from feverish patients with flushed faces, signs that originally suggested an
overabundance of this vital humor.17
The first significant challenge to humoral medicine emerged during the
Renaissance. It was called iatrochemistry, which literally means “medical
chemistry.”18 The iatrochemists, following the lead of Swiss physician
Paracelsus, introduced a medicine based on the properties of sulfur (combustibility), mercury (vapor), and salt (solidity), while emphasizing such
things as the chemistry of the blood and nerve “juices.” Breaking with the past,
they also introduced the strategy of treating some illnesses with poisons,
which is something the Greek humoral theorists and their descendants would
have shunned. The use of mercury and arsenic in mainstream eighteenthcentury medicine can be traced to iatrochemical theories.
The newest medical theory in Franklin’s day, however, was more
mechanical.19 It was stimulated by an increasing desire to break away from
what seemed like alchemy to some learned individuals, and it embraced
Newtonian physics with its emphasis on particles in motion. These physicians attributed signs and symptoms to such things as abnormally tight or
flaccid nerves or abnormal vascular tension. The new objective, which was
basic even to Mesmer’s thinking, was to make sure matter flowed through the
hollow tubes of the body as Nature intended and did not build up because of
blockages to cause problems.
Distinctions between the three basic theories were not always sharp. Many
academicians melded chemical and mechanical ideas together, and ancient
Greek humoral ideas still made their way into newer theoretical conceptions.
Differences of opinion surfaced, especially among the academicians and the
medical elite, and resolving them was often impossible, because the internal
changes associated with humoral, chemical, and mechanical theories could not
be directly observed.
Still, whether it was to cool a fever, counteract a build up of “morbid matter,” or alter the tone of the nerves, most physicians in Franklin’s time carried
pretty much the same weapons in their arsenals. Bleeding, cathartics, less
potent laxatives, purges, blistering agents, and sweat-producing diaphoretics
were very much in vogue. William Douglass, who was never at a loss for
words, wrote that it was all “very uniform, bleeding, vomiting, blistering,
purging, Anodyne, &c. If the illness continued, there was repetendi [repetition] and finally murderandi [murder].”20
For many already debilitated patients receiving the more demanding or
“heroic” treatments, this had to have been the “Age of Agony.”21 But acceptBrought to you by | UCL - University College London
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ing the heroic therapies or the belief that pain was a sign that something
powerful was at work was not the whole story. Less debilitating herbal medicines and alternative forms of healing were also important to the colonists.
In this context, many pragmatic settlers were anxious to learn about the
medicinal plants that might be growing in their backyards from the Indians.22
In North America, just about everyone accepted the fact that the natives
who greeted the new settlers knew considerably more about treating bites
from rattlesnakes and poisonous insects than did the ivory-tower academics
thousands of miles across the ocean. In addition, many colonists believed
that God provided a local remedy for each disease in every part of the world,
including theirs, with its unique climate, terrain, flora, and fauna. The local
Indians were a first source of information about the curative roots, barks,
berries, and nuts in the region. Especially when the European cures did not
work, theirs was valuable knowledge.
Given the state of the healing arts in the colonies, it should come as no surprise that Franklin would have strong interests in medicine and hygiene,
even if he did not possess a college degree or have a medical apprenticeship.
Instead, the surprise would have been if a man of Franklin’s intellect, wideranging interests, love of natural philosophy, medical contacts, and legendary skepticism did not have a real interest in preventive medicine,
epidemics, the disorders that affected his own body, therapeutics, and even
the ravages of time.
What distinguished Franklin from the myriad other colonials who practiced
or dabbled in medicine was that he approached clinical medicine with the
mindset of an experimental natural philosopher. He skillfully designed experiments, collected data, kept careful records, and compiled tables to determine
trends and outcomes. He also read voraciously, contacted authorities to solicit
their opinions, and searched for historical antecedents. Franklin ran his printing business for eighteen years, and he conducted his famous “Philadelphia”
electrical experiments, which included “capturing lightning” with a kite, for
only six years. But he maintained his scientific approach to medicine from
early on until his dying day.
Like most of his countrymen, Franklin was more interested in whether
something worked than why, and he applied his pragmatism to his medicine.
Throughout his medical life he avoided the metaphysics of the ancients and
tended to shun the unanchored speculations of the academics that were cirBrought to you by | UCL - University College London
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culating in his own time. He instead favored hard evidence based on repeated
observations and experiments. His approach was that of an empiricist (from
the Greek emperia, meaning trial or experiment). Of course, rationalism or
reasoning was also extremely important to Franklin, but experiments, careful observations, and quantifiable results came first, reflecting changes that
were hallmarks of the Enlightenment.
The term “Enlightenment” came forth in 1785, one year after Franklin
put Mesmer’s theory to the test. When Immanuel Kant was asked whether he
thought he lived in an enlightened age, he answered: “No we are living in an
age of enlightenment.”23 Kant’s term for Enlightenment was Aufklärung,
and what he was implying quickly caught on—not only among those who
spoke German, but also among those who spoke English or French. The latter referred to the eighteenth century as the siècle des lumières, meaning the
“century of light.”
The Enlightenment is usually dated from about 1730 to 1790 in much of
Western Europe, with a somewhat later start and a later finish in America.24
The term itself can be problematic, because the timing, tone, and themes of
the Enlightenment varied from country to country and even from city to
city. The more pragmatic and secular Dutch, for example, were in many
ways “enlightened” earlier than the British, Germans, or French. There
were also distinct English, Scottish, and colonial versions of the Enlightenment. Within America, Franklin’s adopted city of Philadelphia warmly
embraced the intellectual and cultural ideals of the movement before Boston
or New York.
Historians are in greater agreement about the fact that the seeds for the
Enlightenment were planted well before Franklin was born in 1706. In the
first half of the seventeenth century, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that it was time
to sever ties with the “idols” of the past, meaning those metaphysical theories, unsubstantiated thoughts, and prejudices that might distort the truth.25
Bacon’s basic message was that the scope of human knowledge must now be
extended “beyond the Pillars of Hercules,” an allusion to what had once
been a boundary of the known ancient world. This, he maintained, could be
accomplished only by turning to detailed observations and experiments. The
“Great Renewal” of learning, Bacon opined, must be based on the gradual
accumulation of facts. Franklin would later refer to Bacon as a “prodigious
genius,” adding, “He is justly esteem’d the father of the modern experimental philosophy.”26
Thomas Sydenham, who practiced medicine in England the second half of
the seventeenth century, felt the same way about Bacon and his call for a fresh
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start.27 “To escape the censure of the Great Bacon,” Sydenham gathered case
histories and accumulated a wealth of observable facts at the bedside about
specific medical disorders. Although unable to put speculation totally in
abeyance, most of Sydenham’s “causes” remained fairly close to experience,
and his theories were secondary to detailed observations. Sydenham’s more
empirical approach to clinical medicine drew adherents from his native England and from other parts of Europe.28 His new approach to medicine was
also exported to America, where it had a profound influence on Franklin.
The medical Enlightenment that blossomed after Sydenham died was
based on a number of beliefs that he and Bacon valued highly. One of the
most important was that the future of medicine must be based on careful
observations, objective experiments, more sophisticated instruments, and
above all, data. Another was that general laws would come from combining
indisputable facts with solid reasoning. Exposing the errors, superstitions,
and falsehoods of the past was basic to the Enlightenment, as was optimism
about the future. The widespread belief was that there would soon be better
ways of preventing some diseases and of treating others.
Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam (1561–1626), and the cover plate of his 1620
treatise showing a ship going through the Pillars of Hercules, the known
boundary of the ancient world.
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Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689), the influential English physician who
applied Baconian philosophy to the practice of medicine. (Photo courtesy of
the University of California Press.)
The medical Enlightenment evolved into a democratic undertaking, with
ordinary citizens being recruited to search for truth alongside their more formally educated cousins. And it was an international venture, one in which
national boundaries and even wars did not prevent people from communicating new ideas to each other. The ultimate humanitarian goal of the
Enlightenment was to improve the lot of all people: men and women, young
and old, and especially the poor and destitute who, through no fault of their
own, could not help themselves.
Franklin’s forays into medicine were inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, and without question he contributed significantly to the medical side
of the movement. He was optimistic that experimental natural philosophy
would lead to better disease prevention and medical care. He was deeply committed to the search for basic laws of nature that would be infallible and would
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put an end to superstition, quackery, and ignorance. He advocated accurate
observations and careful experiments, and he built better instruments. Religious dogma, grandiose formulations, and the gripping tentacles of the past
did not hold him back, and he was anxious to develop and share medical ideas
with anyone, anywhere.
Franklin hoped that his medicine would “contribute to the relief of man’s
estate,” to use Baconian language. Helping people in practical ways was
always very important to him. In his Autobiography, which he started to write
in England when he was well into his sixties, Franklin tied practical utility to
his religious beliefs. Although this document is selective and clearly reflective of the image he wished to convey to others, he admitted that he was
never one for organized religion with its dogma and mythology. Yet he also
stated that he believed in God, and he proceeded to tell his readers that the
best way he could think of to honor God was not in church, but with earthly
deeds. In his words, “the most acceptable service to God was the doing good
to man.”29
Franklin also included this thought a number of times in his most famous
publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack. There we find: “The noblest question
in the world is, What Good may I do in it?”30 In a later edition of the Almanack
he asked the question: “What is Serving God?” His answer: “’Tis doing
Good to Man.”31
Using Poor Richard as his mouthpiece, Franklin also expressed a closely
related thought: “When you’re good to others, you are best to yourself.”32 In
other words, service to others is not just a way of honoring God; it is also an
important step toward moral perfection.
Franklin’s desire to do good for his community and to better himself were
two goals he established early in life, after he read Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: An Essay upon the Good.33 He would later sell some of Mather’s books
in his shop, and he would tell the famous cleric’s son Samuel that his father
“set a greater value on the character of a doer of good, than on any other
kind of reputation; and if I have been, as you seem to think, a useful citizen,
the public owes the advantage of it to that book.”34
Franklin personally took on the “bold and arduous project of arriving at
moral perfection” by listing thirteen virtues, beginning with Temperance
and ending with Humility. Along with his resolution to pursue his listed
virtues one at a time (he even drew up a checklist), he posed two questions—
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one to be addressed in the morning and the other in the evening. Upon waking, he would ask himself, “What good shall I do this day?” And before
retiring for the night, he would reflect, “What good have I done to-day?”35
Along with community service and moral perfection, Franklin also
gravitated to medicine because he found it intellectually stimulating and
loved the thrill of making new discoveries. Further, he liked to interact
with the intellectual elite and doers in society, many of whom were respected
physicians. But there is no reason to doubt that community service and
moral perfection were very important to him, and that they were among
the reasons why he was drawn to medicine and why he did so much in this
Franklin contributed to medicine in many ways. One had to do with improving personal hygiene and establishing regimens for healthy living. In this
domain, preventive medicine, he strove to understand how a healthy body
and a healthy mind could best be maintained or at least not abused. He looked
very carefully at what he and other people ate and drank, the benefits of exercise, and the air people breathed. His writings about hygiene had roots in the
past, but they also drew on the naturalistic observations and experiments he
Franklin was also involved in developing a better understanding of the
nature of certain illnesses, trying to figure out how to prevent the onslaught
of particular diseases, determining what might cure a disorder, and exposing
quack remedies like mesmerism to the public. In this context, he studied and
had reasoned opinions about many disorders, from simple colds to deadly
Franklin’s medicine also had an inventive component. He designed medical instruments for treating the sick and injured, and worked on new inventions to improve air quality in the home and workplace. Knowing that some
physical conditions, such as those associated with aging, would not improve,
he also developed prosthetic devices, such as bifocal glasses. Less well
known is that he also invented a number of other aids for helping the lame
and the aged, including a tool he called his “artificial arm” for grasping outof-reach objects without having to climb a ladder.
Finally, the founding of institutions figured prominently into Franklin’s
medicine, and they stand among his proudest accomplishments. In this context, he was deeply involved with building hospitals for the poor and in
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improving existing facilities for treating the sick and wounded. He was also
concerned with medical education in the colonies, and he played an important behind-the-scenes role in establishing the first medical school in North
Hence, Franklin’s enlightened medicine has at least four components to it.
The first is preventive medicine (hygiene). The second is illnesses and cures.
The third is prosthetic devices and other inventions. And the fourth is institutions. But to what extent was he really original?
Franklin made a number of important, original contributions. But more
often than not, he had an uncanny ability to catch on to something that
another person might have said or written, to evaluate it, and to do more
with it—provided it had practical utility and seemed worth the effort. Sometimes this meant collecting detailed observations and compiling statistics to
confirm what he was hearing or reading. On other occasions, he followed
through by conducting what medical researchers would now think of as clinical trials. Although some of his clinical investigations were on other people,
he also performed or had others perform tests on his own body. When evaluating Mesmer’s claims in 1784, for example, he served as a subject in a number of experiments to determine whether his ailing body was in any way
susceptible to the alleged magnetic force.
Advancing an idea or a new finding also meant spreading the word orally
and in letters. In this domain, Franklin communicated with leading physicians and sent written reports to journals and learned societies. Additionally,
he presented important and timely medical material in his newspaper and
almanac. And, as a printer, he printed select medical books and informative
pamphlets written by others on his presses.
Franklin was a master of pithy medical sayings that would withstand the
test of time, such as “Quacks were the greatest liars in the world, except for
their patients.”36 But he was at his best when it came to getting other members of the medical community to look at ideas supported by impressive new
findings. Moreover, he was never possessive of his own ideas.
Getting important backers and donations were also part of the picture,
particularly when funding was needed for an important charitable project,
such as a hospital in growing Philadelphia. When it came to supporting
something good for the community, or for an overlooked segment of that
community, Franklin had the rare ability to win endorsements from people
with wealth and power. Of equal significance, he was capable of convincing
working people, who might have only a few small coins in their pockets, to
support worthy causes.
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Thus, Franklin was at times original. But even when he was less than original, he was both a thinker, a man who readily picked up on good ideas and
recognized the absurdity of bad ones, and a doer, a person who knew just
how to get the job done. Remarkably well rounded, he used his talents
adroitly in the field of medicine. This held true not just in Philadelphia, but
in London, Paris, and other places as well.
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