The BackBlog: Elisha Perkins and the Metallic Tractors

By , January 28, 2020

When I found these strange metal objects in one of the first boxes that I opened from the backlog, I knew exactly what they were. These were Perkins tractors: one of the strangest medical fads I had ever heard about.

In 1796, physician Elisha Perkins began selling a new therapeutic device called the Perkins tractor. These tractors were teardrop-shaped metal rods that were about three inches long and flat on the bottom. They were sold in pairs, with one tractor made of iron and the other made of brass. By merely touching these rods to your skin, Perkins claimed, you could cure rheumatism, inflammation, epilepsy, and any number of other medical maladies. The best part of all? There was no need to be a trained doctor in order to use them. All anyone had to do was touch the devices to the afflicted area, and their symptoms would disappear.

Photo of a pair of Perkins Tractors, two teardrop-shaped pieces of metal. One is silver in color and the other is gold.

A pair of Perkins Tractors, circa 1800. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (LEAN0011)

It might seem obvious to a modern reader that these cure-all devices were too good to be true, but in the late 18th and early 19th century, they were a massive hit. While there were certainly detractors—Perkins was expelled from the Connecticut Medical Society shortly after he began marketing the device—many physicians and noteworthy members of society endorsed his invention. Perkins tractors were sold to physicians and congressmen. Even George Washington bought a pair. The sales were so successful that Perkins quickly branched out to Europe. While Elisha Perkins sold the tractors at home, his son Benjamin Perkins went to England to sell them there, and continued to do so after his father’s death in 1799. The family made quite a bit of money off them. Perkins tractors were sold for $25 a pair–close to a $500 value today.

In the end, however, the skeptics won. Many scientists and doctors felt that the devices were nothing but quackery. Multiple English physicians conducted tests in which some of their patients were treated with genuine Perkins tractors, and some were treated with instruments made of other materials. These physicians all found that all materials were equally effective, so long as the patient believed that they were being treated with genuine Perkins tractors. These were likely some of the earliest experiments into what we know today as the placebo effect: the idea that a person’s body can have a response to a treatment simply because they believe that it will work.

After these experiments were publicized, the Perkins tractors were ridiculed throughout society. Scholars published papers about their ineffectiveness. Poets and cartoonists lampooned the treatment in magazines and newspapers. Eventually, the tractors fell out of fashion, and people stopped using them.

Living in the 21st century, it’s easy to laugh off the Perkins tractors as obvious quackery. However, it’s important to remember that at the time it wasn’t so obvious. Although there were some skeptics, highly educated people fell for these devices. Cases like these remind us that if something seems too good to be true, it very well might be. And 200 years from now, we might be the ones someone’s laughing at.

The BackBlog: Shining a Spotlight on the Warren Anatomical Museum Backlog

By , January 21, 2020

My name is Theodora Burbank, and I’m the Collections Assistant for the Warren Anatomical Museum. In the fall of 2018, the museum created a plan to address our catalog’s backlog of medical instruments. A backlog is something that many museums have, and that can be difficult to get through on top of day-to-day museum work. I have had the pleasure of working on this plan and sorting through the backlog, and now I’m excited to share some of that work with you.

Photo of a row of shelves containing cardboard boxes

Boxes containing medical instruments from the backlog

The Warren Anatomical Museum’s backlog consisted of 104 boxes of historical medical instruments. The majority of these boxes contained objects that were previously housed in an off-site storage facility. Some contained items from a former gallery space. There were also a few boxes of unknown origins. With such a large number of boxes to get through, we realized that we would need to do something different from our usual cataloging process. We looked at all of the data that we would normally take when completing inventory for an object and decided which fields were “essential”—information that a researcher would need to have to find objects or conduct their work. We hoped that by focusing on these essential fields we could get items from the backlog available to researchers as quickly as possible without compromising necessary data.

Before the sorting process began, we didn’t know too much about what we would find. Outside of generalized labels like “Microscopes” and “Plaster Casts”, along with a few peeks into the boxes, the backlog was dark. After 250 hours of sorting through these dark boxes, we learned that the backlog contained almost 4000 individual objects. Some boxes only contained a few objects. Others contained over a hundred. The vast majority of the instruments were from the 19th century, with some as recent as the 1970s and a few dating back to the early 1700s. There were instruments that had been donated by some of the founding members of the Warren’s collection, including Henry Jacob Bigelow and John Collins Warren, as well as many other notable Boston-area physicians. The objects span a wide range of medical fields, with a large concentration of OBGYN and Ear, Nose, and Throat instruments.

In this series of blog posts, I plan to shine a spotlight on some of my favorite finds from the backlog. Some are exciting because of the stories that are connected to them. Others represent major moments in the history of medicine. Still others involved mysteries that needed to be solved. And, of course, some are simply interesting medical devices. Altogether, these objects can teach us not only about the history of medicine but also about the history of the Warren Anatomical Museum and its collections.

I hope that you enjoy this journey through the backlog as much as I have.

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