Gentleman's Magazine, the Advent of Medical Electricity, and Disorders of the Nervous System

  • Hannah Sypher Locke
  • Stanley Finger

The idea that electricity might have a place in mainstream medicine represented one of the most significant therapeutic developments in the eighteenth century. By looking at articles written or sponsored by Fellows of the Royal Society in the Philosophical Transactions and by examining what was written by the leadership of other elite organizations, one can begin to appreciate what the academy physicians were encountering, discovering, and believing. Still, this more traditional approach is limited in scope.

In 1731, businessman Edward Cave began publication of a magazine that would include news and potentially useful information for the broader British public. He targeted inquisitive people in cities and rural areas who wanted to keep abreast of new developments, including medical breakthroughs. Moreover, his innovative Gentleman’s Magazine welcomed submissions and commentary from his readers, even if they were not college educated or members of prestigious societies.

Cave’s publication is often regarded as the first modern magazine. But of even greater importance to medical historians, it also provides a unique glimpse of how new developments in medicine were perceived and reported by “nonacademy” practitioners, observers, and even patients. In this chapter, we shall present what people read about medical electricity in Gentleman’s Magazine from 1745, when the new treatment began to be made public, to 1760, by which time it had become one of the most popular fads in the history of medicine. Our emphasis will be on disorders of the nervous system, which then included not just strokes and other neurological disorders, but also hysteria.

The basic idea behind Cave’s new magazine was that it would present rural and urban news, as well as other types of articles, under a single cover, so that the gentlemanly reader could get everything in one place, rather than having to buy several city and country newspapers (Carlson, 1938, pp. 29–30). As its chief editor, Cave took the nom de plume of Sylvanus Urban. Sylvanus was the Roman god of the woods and Urban referred to metropolitan. This was just one way for Cave to show that he wanted his new publication to be relevant to people in both the city and the countryside.

Gentleman’s Magazine has been hailed as the first modern magazine, and it might well have been the most important periodical for readers of English during the volatile eighteenth century. Yet because its innovations were so successful, it soon engendered competition.


Royal Society Eighteenth Century Electrical Machine Philosophical Transaction Electric Fish 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hannah Sypher Locke
    • 1
  • Stanley Finger
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWashington UniversitySt. LouisUSA

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