Elisha Perkins: Eighteenth-century Metallic Tractor Inventor

Elisha Perkins was a United States physician and inventor who created a fraudulent medical device to cure inflammation, rheumatism, and pain. His story begins when he was born on 16 January 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut to and Mary Bushnell II and Joseph Perkins, who had graduated from Yale College in 1727 and practiced medicine in Norwich. The Joseph schooled his son Elisha in medicine and he served as his father’s assistant and gained knowledge in the medical field.

Elisha Perkins

Elisha Perkins. Courtesy of Find A Grave.

A year or so before Madame Tussaud and Eliza de Feuillide were born, in 1760, Elisha Perkins moved to Plainfield, Connecticut where he established his own practice. As he began to acquire a robust clientele, he quickly found that doing so required a lot of hard work and great fortitude. Fortunately, he demonstrated that he had some natural characteristics towards these traits:

“He possessed by nature uncommon endowments, both bodily and mental. In his person he was six feet high, and of remarkable symmetry. His ability to perform active professional business was extraordinary; he frequently rode sixty miles a day, and generally on horseback, and this without the aid of artificial stimulants, never making use of ardent spirits.”[1]

Besides being reliable, hardworking, and tireless, Perkins also had some unusual habits that his patients witnessed:

“When making his professional visits and inclined to sleep, he would hand his watch to a person and throw himself on a bed or couch, give orders to be waked in five minutes precisely; if suffered to sleep six minutes, he would know by his feelings that the time had been exceeded, and whenever the time of sleep exceeded by one minute his rule, he invariably would say that he felt the worse for it. By this practice he was enabled to perform his duties with three or four hours sleep in the night for many weeks in succession, though subjected to great fatigue.”[2]

Elisha Perkins also had great zeal for curing disease partly because during the late eighteenth century, the Enlightenment brought about an increased demand for new therapies. This resulted in many people trying to solve medical problems by creating therapeutic devices and other such inventions. Perkins likewise wanted to help his patients suffering from pain, rheumatism, and inflammation.

“[He thought] that metallic substances might have an influence on the nerves and muscles of animals, and be capable of being converted to useful purposes as external agents in medicine, he was induced to institute numerous experiments with various kinds of metals, till at length, after several years pursuit … he discovered a composition which would serve his purpose, and from which he formed his Metallic Tractors.”[3]

Perkins’ metallic tractors consisted of two instruments 3-inches in length. The tractors were described as “half rounded on one side, while the other was flat and usually had the name ‘Perkins Patent Tractors’ stamped upon it; they were rounded at one end and drawn out into a sharp point at the other, and resembled a horseshoe nail in appearance.”[4] Although Perkins claimed the tractors were created from unusual metal alloys, one tractor was steel and the other brass. They could be applied to a patient’s head, face, feet, breast, side, stomach, and back to “draw off the noxious electrical fluid that lay at the root of suffering.”[5] Perkins accomplished this by drawing the points over the affected parts of a person in a downward direction for about twenty minutes.

Elisha Perkins - his metallic tractors

Perkins’ patent tractors. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Perkins patent tractors were patented on 19 February 1796. He then began a whirlwind campaign to popularize them and was well received by many people. He sold his metallic tractors for $25.00 a pair to distinguished individuals such as clergymen, scientists, and royalty. Moreover, according to a journal article published in 1935 by Professor William Snow Miller:

“The hospitals and infirmaries opened their doors to him, and ‘The Board of Managers of the Almshouse were so impressed that they purchased the patent right for the Tractors for Philadelphia.’ … Even the President of the United States, George Washington, purchased a set for use in his own family. The Chief Justice of the United States, the Honorable Oliver Ellsworth, was convinced of their value and he not only purchased a set, but he also gave Perkins [a] … letter of introduction to John Marshal, who later succeeded him as Chief Justice.”[6]

Newspaper advertisements for Perkins’ metallic tractors were also plentiful. The first of these advertisements began running in newspapers in early 1797. One early ad that appeared in March of that year was published in the Aurora General Advertiser of Pennsylvania and read:

“Dr. Perkins’ Patent Metallic Tractors. DOCTOR PERKINS of this City who has the TRACTORS for sale, requests those persons who wish to purchase or receive information respecting their efficacy, to call on him at his office, No. 14. South Fourth-street, between the hours of seven and nine in the morning, and from two to three o’clock in the afternoon, as his professional business renders it inconvenient for him to attend at any other hour.

The public may be assured that the Doctor has not said more of their efficacy in his advertisements or pamphlets of certificates, than their merit richly deserves, they are worthy the attention of every gentleman to keep in his family and particularly to sea, farming men, and planters.”[7]

Elisha Perkins -

James Gillray‘s caricature of Elisha Perkins using his metallic tractors. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

There were also several pamphlets published about the metallic tractors. For instance, in 1798 Perkins’ son, Benjamin Douglas, published The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body. The pamphlet involved a discussion of various painful inflammatory diseases and provided stories of the tractors’ origin and how his father came to the realization that he needed to invent them to cure disease. The Observer in London provided the following advertisement for the pamphlet stating:

“METALLIC TRACTORS – … THE Influence of METALLIC TRACTORS on the Human Body, in removing various painful Inflammatory Disease, such as Rheumatism, Pleurisy, some Gouty Affections, &c. &c. lately discovered by Dr. Perkins of North America, and demonstrated in a series of Experiments and Observations by Professor Meigs, Woodward, Rogers, &c. &c. by which the important of the Discovery is fully ascertained, and a new field of enquiry opened in the modern science of Galvanism, or Animal Electricity.”[8]

Many people far and wide heard about Elisa Perkins and his metallic tractors. They were highly impressed:

“The fame of the Metallic Tractors soon reached Europe. They were introduced in Copenhagen in 1798, where twelve physicians and surgeons, chiefly professors and lecturers in the Royal Frederick’s Hospital, commenced a course of experiments, and reported the results to Professors Herholdt and Rafn. The experiments, fifty in number, were deemed sufficiently important to demand publication in an octavo volume. The Professors introduced the term Perkinism in honour of the discoverer, and asserted that it was of great importance to the physician.”[9]

Elisha Perkins’ fame also resulted in the establishment of the Perkinean Institution in London that extolled the virtues of his patent tractors. It was founded in 1803, four years after Perkins’ death. Public subscriptions helped to establish it so that impoverished laborers and other poor people could receive free metallic tractor treatments. The president of the institution was the Right Honorable Lord Rivers (Richard Savage, 4th Earl Rivers), and amazingly, one of the vice-presidents was none other than Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, William.

William Franklin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Supporters at the Perkinean Institution and promoters of the metallic tractors maintained that the devices had been successfully used in “institutional settings” in places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Yet, despite all the hype and approval that Perkins’ metallic tractors received from Copenhagen, some doctors, and leading citizens, they were critics who believed the tractors were useless.

Among the severest of Elisha Perkins’ critics was the Connecticut Medical Society. They condemned him and his metallic tractors as “delusive quackery.” The society then removed and barred Perkins from further membership, which was detailed in a report by The Medical Repository of 1804:

“Whereas Dr. Elisha Perkins, a member of this Society, having obtained a patent from under the authority of the United States, for the exclusive privilege of using and vending certain pointed Metallic Instruments, pretending that they were an invention of his own; and also, that they possess inherent powers of curing many disease, which is contrary to rules and regulations adopted by this Society, interdicting their members the use of nostrums, – Therefore, Voted, That the said Elisha Perkins be expelled from the Medical Society of the State of Connecticut.”[10]

Other critics also claimed that Elisha Perkins and his metallic tractors achieved cures that were “effected merely though the influence of … imagination.”[11] Of course this did not sit well with his supporters. They responded that a multitude “of cures were performed on infants and even on horses, where of course such influence could not be presumed to exist.”[12] Yet, no matter what supporters and the Perkinean Institution said, critics appeared to be right that the imagination could create miraculous cures.

Is was further demonstrated that imagination could create a cure by a Dr. Eli Todd of Connecticut. He was a pioneer in the treatment of the mentally ill and practiced in Farmington. He had been called to see a young boy who was experiencing excruciating back pain. Soon after Todd arrived Elisha Perkins also arrived with his metallic tractors and asked Todd that he be allowed to relieve the boy’s pain. Todd was skeptical but assented.

Elisha Perkins - picture of Dr. Eli Todd

Dr. Eli Todd. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Elisha Perkins then drew his tractors over the boy and “the attention of the patient was immediately arrested ― the pain began to abate and was soon gone.”[13] Perkins then asked Todd if there was any way for him to explain how the pain had disappeared if the tractors were not indeed associated with the cure and he then said ‘What do you now think of my tractors? [and then continued] … Let me advise you to throw away your antiquated scholastic notions and yield to the improvements of the age and fall in with the march of minds.’”[14]

Todd made no reply. However, a short time later the boy began writhing in pain and called loudly for the tractors to be used. This time Todd appeared:

“‘My boy,’ said Dr. Todd, ‘the tractors did appear to relieve you and you ought again to have the benefit of them.’ … [T]he doctor having provided himself with some pieces of shingle whittled to a shape resembling the tractors, applied them as the tractors had been applied … and with the same success. Dr. Todd then turned to Dr. Perkins and asked him, ‘what he then thought of his metallic tractors?’”[15]

As critics increased against Perkins and his tractors, eventually, just like Todd had done, a Dr. John Haygarth of Bath devised a test to determine the efficacy of Perkins’ metallic tractors. He published his findings in a paper called On the Imagination as a Cause & as a Cure of Disorders of the Body, and in fact, his work helped establish what we call the placebo effect. Exactly how Haygarth’s test was conducted was provided in the Medical Pickwick, a monthly literary magazine of wit and wisdom founded in 1915:

“[Haygarth] had some imitation tractors made of wood and painted to look like the real ones, and he found that equally wonderful results were produced by them, as long as the patients believed them to be the real thing. They produced no results, however, when the patients were aware that they were imitations. He also found that the real tractors had not effect upon patients who had never heard of them and knew nothing about their wonderful powers. In other words, suggestion and faith were necessary before the miracles could be performed.”[16]

Dr. John Haygarth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Elisha Perkins is most associated with his metallic tractors, that is not all he invented. He also claimed to have created an antiseptic medicine, a “preparation of common vinegar, saturated with muriate of soda, diluted with three-fourths its quantity of hot water, and administered warm.”[17] He used it for dysentery and sore throat and took it to New York in the summer of 1799 to test its efficacy on yellow fever.

Elisha Perkins was well-known, and he was overwhelmed with business. Unfortunately, he was stricken with yellow fever and died on 6 September 1799, at the age of fifty-nine. After his death his tractors continued to briskly sell and they remained popular until his son died eleven years later in 1810.

References:

  • [1] New York Medical and Physical Journal (1828), p. 410.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 411.
  • [4] William S. Miller, “Elisha Perkins and His Metallic Tractors,” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 8, no. 1 (1935): p. 43.
  • [5] Daily Life in Colonial America (Reader’s Digest, 1993), p. 137.
  • [6] W. S. Miller, p. 43–44.
  • [7] Auroa General Advertisement, “Dr. Perkins’ Patent Metallic Tractors,” March 22, 1797, p. 3.
  • [8] The Observer, “Metallic Tractors,” July 22, 1798, p. 1.
  • [9] New York Medical and Physical Journal (1828), p. 411.
  • [10] The Medical Repository, 3rd ed. 1 (New York: T. & J. Swords, 1804), p. 109.
  • [11] J. van Crowninshield Smith, Scientific Tracts and Family Lyceum: Designed for Instruction and Entertainment, and Adapted to Schools, Lyceums and Families, Scientific Tracts and Family Lyceum (Allen & Ticknor, 1834), p. 113.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Hartford Courant, “Quakery in the Last Century,” July 14, 1859, p. 2.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “The Medical Pickwick,” iii, no. 1 (1917): p. 16–17.
  • [17] W. S. Miller p. 45.

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