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Happy Birthday Ben!
Benjamin Franklin at TJU

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Benjamin Franklin, oil on canvas portrait owned by TJU. Artist unknown (after Joseph Siffred Duplessis), ca. 1850s or 1860s.

Well…no. Not really. But like most Philadelphia institutions, we do have links to that iconic American scientist. As the world celebrates the 300th anniversary of Dr. Franklin’s birth and his adopted city reads his famous “Autobiography” in the One Book - One Philadelphia Project, let's take a brief look at the legacies this local genius bequeathed to Thomas Jefferson University.

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Franklin Bache (1792-1864), engraving by Robert Whitechurch, ca. 1850s.

No doubt, Benjamin Franklin was the foundingest of all the Founding Fathers! A partial list of institutions he began (or helped to begin) include the American Philosophical Society, the Fire Insurance Company of North America., Pennsylvania Hospital, and (what would become) the University of Pennsylvania. His title, Doctor, referred to the honorary degree he received at Oxford in 1757 for his numerous scientific contributions.

Although associated with his friend from Virginia, Jefferson Medical College was established in 1824, 34 years after the death of Franklin (1790), but his great grandson, another scientist, Franklin Bache, M.D. served on the JMC faculty.

Franklin Bache was born in 1792 and, after studying privately with Signer of the Declaration, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took his medical degree from University of Pennsylvania in 1810. Soon afterward he joined the U.S. Army and by 1814 he was a fully-commissioned Surgeon (while serving in active duty in the War of 1812) and resigned two years later. Bache set up a private practice in Philadelphia that was highly successful. Very involved in the scientific life of his hometown, Dr. Bache was also Chair of Chemistry at JMC from 1841 until his death in 1864. Author of numerous publications, a notable contribution is the “monumental, authoritative and widely circulated” Dispensatory of the United States, a pharmacology guide which saw eleven editions under his joint purview with Dr. George B. Wood.

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The Dispensatory of the United States of America, by Wood and Bache, Philadelphia, 1833. First edition, title page.

A component of teaching chemistry was electricity--its nature and applications to medicine. Benjamin Franklin and his kite experiments no doubt inspired Jacob Green (JMC’s first Chair of Chemistry, 1824-1841), to publish An Epitome of Electricity and Galvanism in 1809, when the author was barely nineteen. “Old Jaky” received his M.D. from Yale in 1827.

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An Epitome of Electricity & Galvanism, by Jacob Green, Philadelphia, 1809. Engraving of a static electricity apparatus.

Early suggestions of electro-therapy initiated from the man who scientifically analyzed and defined electricity. The following is a letter from Dr. Franklin when he was in London.


To John Pringle

Sir Dec. 21. 1757

The following is what I can at present recollect, relating to the Effects of Electricity in Paralytic Cases, which have fallen under my Observation.

Some Years since, when the News papers made Mention of great Cures perform'd in Italy or Germany by means of Electricity, a Number of Paralytics were brought to me from different Parts of Pensilvania and the neighbouring Provinces, to be electris'd, which I did for them, at their Request. My Method was, to place the Patient first in a Chair on an electric Stool, and draw a Number of large strong Sparks from all Parts of the affected Limb or Side. Then I fully charg'd two 6 Gallon Glass Jarrs, each of which had about 3 square feet of Surface coated and I sent the united Shock of these thro' the affected Limb or Limbs, repeating the Stroke commonly three Times each Day. The first Thing observ'd was an immediate greater sensible Warmth in the lame Limbs that had receiv'd the Stroke than in the others; and the next Morning the Patients usually related that they had in the Night felt a pricking Sensation in the Flesh of the paralytic Limbs, and would sometimes shew a Number of small red Spots which they suppos'd were occasion'd by those Prickings: The Limbs too were found more capable of voluntary Motion, and seem'd to receive Strength; a Man, for Instance, who could not, the first Day, lift the lame Hand from off his Knee, would the next Day raise it four or five Inches, the third Day higher, and on the fifth Day was able, but with a feeble languid Motion, to take off his Hat. These Appearances gave great Spirits to the Patients, and made them hope a perfect Cure; but I do not remember that I ever saw any Amendment after the fifth Day: Which the Patients perceiving, and finding the Shocks pretty severe, they became discourag'd, went home and in a short time relapsed; so that I never knew any Advantage from Electricity in Palsies that was permanent. And how far the apparent temporary Advantage might arise from the Exercise in the Patients Journey and coming daily to my House, or from the Spirits given by the Hope of Success, enabling them to exert more Strength in moving their Limbs, I will not pretend to say.

Perhaps some permanent Advantage might have been obtained, if the Electric Shocks had been accompanied with proper Medicine and Regimen, under the Direction of a skilful Physician. It may be, too, that a few great Strokes, as given in my Method, may not be so proper as many small ones; since by the Account from Scotland of the Case in which 200 Shocks from a Phial were given daily, seems that a perfect Cure has been made. As to any uncommon Strength supposed to be in the Machine used in that Case, I imagine it could have no Share in the Effect produced; since the Strength of the Shock from charg'd Glass, is in proportion to the Quantity of Surface of the Glass coated; so that my Shocks from those large Jarrs must have been much greater than any that could be received from a Phial held in the hand.

I am, with great Respect, Sir, Your most obedient Servant,

-- Benj. Franklin


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Experiments and Observations on Electricity made in Philadelphia at America, by Benjamin Franklin, London, 1769. Fourth edition, engraving of Plate I.

Franklin’s house in London (36 Craven Street) was the site of a grisly discovery in 1998. Workmen unearthed the remains of six children and four adults. The Times of London reported:

Initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house, which was his home from 1757 to 1762, and from 1764 to 1775. Most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn or cut. One skull has been drilled with several holes. Paul Knapman, the Westminster Coroner, said yesterday: "I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime. There is still a possibility that I may have to hold an inquest."

Scholars believe that a young surgeon, William Hewson, who rented from Franklin and, in 1772, established a school of anatomy in the rear of the house was probably the depositor of the ossifed remnants. Dr. Hewson was a student of the great anatomist, William Hunter. Acquisition of corpses for dissection was not regulated at this time and it was likely that these bones were robbed from graves, hence the secret disposition. Among Hewson’s early researches, he published his microscopic observations on blood cell structure and coagulation. Ironically, he fell victim to his own scalpel, when he died of phthisis at the age of 23 after cutting himself during a dissection.

Hewson’s widow and son, Thomas Tickell Hewson, emigrated to Philadelphia in 1786. Thomas would become a leading physician and his son, Addinell, graduated from JMC in 1850. Addinell was an occassional lecturer at Jefferson on surgery. In turn, his son, Addinell Jr., also graduated from Jefferson in 1879 and served for over 25 years as a faculty member in anatomy and surgery.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, physicians had an assortment of devices which would apply electrical applications to their patients. Diathermy is one area of such treatment that is almost a century old. However the scientific evidence for many health claims was often lacking, yet surgical instrument catalogs abounded with batteries, electrodes and dynamos.

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Addinell Hewson, Jr. (1855-1938), as Assistant Professor of Anatomy at JMC, 1903. “Birtman” Static Machine, Charles Williams Surgical Instrument Co., Baltimore, 1905. Supply catalog entry. “Improved Magneto-Electric Machine,” William Skidmore, maker, Sheffield, England, ca. 1850s. Mahogany, brass, iron.

The legitimate outcomes of electric, electronic and nuclear power to medicine are enormous; surgical lamps, X-ray, pumps, monitors, perfusion machines, MRI, etc., would surely please Dr. Franklin. New alternate therapies investigate the interrelationship between electromagnetic energy and the human body. Magnets and electromagnetic therapy devices are currently being employed to eliminate pain, stress, and facilitate the healing of broken bones.

Thanks, Ben!

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