Article ID: CBB000550749

Common Sense, Useful Knowledge, and Matters of Fact in the Late Enlightement: The Transatlantic Career of Perkins's Tractors (2004)


ON July 14, 1796, John Vaughan, a physician trained at the College of Philadelphia and member of the Medical Society of Delaware, wrote to Dr. Elisha Perkins (1741--1799) of Plainfield, Connecticut, about his experimental trials with Perkins's recently patented therapeutic apparatus "Perkins's Metallic Tractors." "I have operated in a few cases only with your instruments," Vaughan explained, one of "nervous or hysteric head-ache," the other of "odantalgia" (toothache), with remarkable success, curing the patients in both instances. A third case involved treating a young man who had fallen ten or fifteen feet "and received a considerable contusion in the umbilical region, with tumefaction." Vaughan decided to bleed him, but this procedure proved useless. After "about two minutes operation with the instruments," however, the man "exclaimed, in extasy [sic], 'I am well---I am well---my pain is gone.'" Reprinted in Evidences of the Efficacy of Doctor Perkins's Patent Metallic Instruments, one of several collections of testimonials published in the United States and Great Britain in the late 1790s, Vaughan's account exemplified Perkins's strategy for marketing his device to consumers: using testimony based on the evidence of the senses to demonstrate that Tractors cured a variety of disorders, while leaving aside the question of how these cures were effected.1 1 A set of Perkins's Tractors consisted of two three-inch metallic rods made of brass and iron (Figure I), and they sold for twenty-five Continental dollars in North America and five guineas in Britain. At the close of the eighteenth century, they enjoyed such success that they became a currency of exchange in and of themselves. Dr. Benjamin Parker recalled that "a gentleman in Virginia sold a plantation and took the pay for it in Tractors." "Nothing was more common," he noted, "than to sell horses and carriages to buy them." In addition to his own itinerant promotions, Perkins employed physicians and apothecaries as local agents to market Tractors from New England to South Carolina. In Britain, meanwhile, Tractors also became high therapeutic fashion. In 1797, Perkins sent his son Benjamin Douglas Perkins (1774--1810) across the Atlantic as his London agent. "Mr. P. imports his Tractors from America in parcels of two hundred sets, valued by him at one thousand guineas," observed the Irish satirist and anti-Perkinist John Corry, equaling "fifty-two thousand guineas annually for this base metal! " Setting up a clinic in Leicester Square, in the former residence of the eminent London surgeon John Hunter, Benjamin Perkins's career paralleled his father's, selling Tractors through agents in Bath, Liverpool, and elsewhere in provincial Britain. Despite repeated accusations of quackery, damaging comparisons with the controversial Mesmerist movement of the 1780s, and the untimely death of Elisha Perkins in 1799, "Perkinism" proved durable enough to achieve an institutional culmination in the Perkinean Society of London in 1803. When Benjamin Perkins finally returned to the United States in 1807, he is thought to have treated or supplied as many as one and a half million patients and made ten thousand pounds.2


Description On an internationally popular theraputic apparatus.

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Authors & Contributors
Prentice, Rachel
Vannozzi, Francesca
Terenna, Gigliola
Olsén, Jan Eric
Toledo-Pereyra, Luis H.
Stahnisch, Frank W.
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences
Social Studies of Science
Polhem: Tidskrift för Teknikhistoria
Journal of the History of Dentistry
Atti e memorie dell'Accademia Galileiana (Pt. 2, Memorie della classe di scienze matematiche e naturali)
Nuova Immagine Editrice
Landes Bioscience
University of Toronto
McGill University
University of Maine
University of California, Davis
Medical instruments and apparatus
Obstetrics and pregnancy
Medical technology
Du Bois-Reymond, Emil Heinrich
Magendie, François
Curtis, John Harrison
United States
Great Britain
19th century
20th century
18th century
20th century, late
16th century
15th century

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