In Canada, electrotherapy – or the use of electricity to treat illness or restore health – was practiced by doctors, lay practitioners and the general public from about the 1840s until the 1940s. Its popularity arose in part due to the simplicity and affordable cost of these devices as well as the ease in which individuals could administer treatment in homes, offices or hospitals. Moreover, these devices claimed to treat a wide range of aches, pains and ailments.

How did these devices work? Nineteenth century devices such as Electromagnetic Machines, Faradic Battery Machines, and Galvanic Machines, among others, relied mostly on batteries. Some produced electricity through simple chemical action while others used magneto-electric power. For greater charge intensity, some portable devices used both a battery and an induction coil. Around the 1920s, a new device – the Ultra-Violet Ray Machine – became popular for home use. Through evacuated glass tubes, these machines emitted ultra-violet rays when an electrical charge passed through them. Various other “self-help” devices were also marketed in this period, including the “Theronoid” electromagnetic belt. By the 1930s and 1940s, electrotherapeutics had declied as a medical therapy due to its over-commercialization as a cure-all remedy.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module students will understand:

Step 1: The Objects and Their Properties

For each object answer the following questions:

  1. What do you think the object is and why?      
  2. When, where, by whom and for whom was it made?
  3. What are the materials of which it is made?  Do the materials suggest when it was made?
  4. What techniques were used to make it?  Is it well made?
  5. What does the construction suggest about the date and use of the object?
  6. What are its physical structure, shape, size, style, ornamentation?
  7. Are there parts missing from the object as a whole?
  8. What kind of writing does it have on it, if any?
  9. For what use was it originally intended? Who would have used this object and where?
  10. What, if any, changes in ownership, condition and function have occurred over time?

Branston Violet Ray High Frequency Generator and Ozone and Sinusoidal Controller database entry
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 180° View (requires QuickTime) (1.2Mb)
Directions for the Branston Violet Ray Machine 

Duplex Oxypathor database entry
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Duplex Oxypathor Instructions

Prof. Vernoy's Improved Family Switch Battery database entry
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Step 2: The Meaning of an Artifact

For each object answer the following questions:

  1. Identify it: Has your research confirmed your original identification of the object?
  2. Evaluate it: Rank its aesthetic and functional qualities, considering the material, texture, skill of craftsmanship, effectiveness of overall design, the expressiveness of its form, style and ornamentation. Compare it with other, similar objects within the same time period.
  3. Do the materials, construction or cost of the object suggest who might have purchased it? Who would have used these objects? Where?
  4. What does the location of its use reveal about the role of the doctor and the role of the patient in health and medicine?
  5. What does the object's function reveal about the philosophy of medicine and health at the time? About the philosophy of human bodies and electricity?
  6. What are the different kinds of electrical current? How and why are they used?
  7. What does the object's function reveal about societal fears of urbanization, technology and modernization?
  8. What does the object reveal about what is considered to be "natural" and "unnatural" in health and medicine?
  9. How does the object reveal attitudes about gender differences and roles at the time? Towards male and female sexuality?
  10. How and why does the legitimacy of the object, or the perception of its utility, change over time?
  11. What is the history of the patent information? Who was the creator of the object? What does this history indicate about the legitimacy of the object in the practice of medicine?
  12. What is the history of the companies that manufactured these objects? Does this history indicate the legitimacy of the object in the practice of medicine? Does this history indicate the type of individual who would have purchased or used this object?
  13. To whom are the advertisements aimed? What results might the average purchaser expect when using these devices at home? What do the ads suggest is "legitimate" and detrimental medicine? What does this say about the public's perception of medicine at the time?
  14. How are electrotherapy, phototherapy and oxygen therapy considered in contemporary medicine? How are they used? By whom?

The Vernoy Electro-Medical Battery advertisement, Toronto Star, 23 June 1905, 46, column 1

Obituary. Prof. S. Vernoy, Toronto Daily Star, 31 December 1904, 15, column 4

Magnus J. Redding. Aids to Electro-therapeutics (Toronto: Macmillan Co., 1920), 1-6.

Branston electrotherapy machine advertisement, Globe and Mail, Toronto, 14 October 1918, 5.

Richard Kovacs, Electrotherapy and the Elements of Light Therapy (Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1932), 90-98, 310-17.

O.M. Justice, M.D., Ozone Therapy (Hollywood, 1951).

Betzco catalogue for physicians

Morris Fishbein, Fads and Quackery in Healing: an Analysis fo the Foibles of the Healing Cults, with Essays on Various other Peculiar Notions in the Health Field. (New York: Covici, Friede, 1932), 290-301.

American Medical Association, "Electropoise-Oxydonor-Oxygenor-Oxypathor-Oxytonor-Oxybon,” Nostrums and Quackery, Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery Repreinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association (Chicago: Press of American Medical Association, 1911), 295-309. (PDF 1.8 MB)

Oxypathor advertisement, Globe and Mail, Toronto, 2 September 1911, 5.

Oxypathor advertisement, Globe and Mail, Toronto, 20 January 1912, 4.


Selected References for Further Research


Primary Sources

American Medical Association. Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery Reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago: Press of American Medical Association, 1911.

Beard, George Miller. Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia). New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971.

Cruikshank, Omar T. Electro-therapy in the Abstract for the Busy Practitioner. Philadelphia: The Dando Company, 1917.
Cumberbatch, Elkin. Essentials of Medical Electricity. St. Louis, C. V. Mosby Co., 1924.

Fishbein, Morris. Fads and Quackery in Healing: an Analysis of the Foibles of the Healing Cults, with Essays on Various other Peculiar Notions in the Health Field. New York: Covici, Friede, 1932.

Garratt, Alfred Charles. Electro-physiology and Electro-therapeutics; Showing the Best Methods for the Medical Uses of Electricity. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860.

Grover, Burton. Handbook of Electrotherapy for Practitioners and Students. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Company, 1926.

Guilleminot, W. H. Handbook of Electricity in Medicine. New York: London, Rebman Company, 1906.

Kovacs, Richard.  Electrotherapy and the Elements of Light Therapy. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1932.

Massey, George Betton. Conservative Gynecology and Electro-therapeutics: a Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women and their Treatment by Electricity. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Company, 1905.

Neiswanger, Charles Sherwood. Electro-therapeutical Practice; a Ready Reference Guide for Physicians in the Use of Electricity. Chicago: Ritchie and Company, 1912.

Palmer, H.  On the Application of Localised Galvanism in the Treatment of Disease. Toronto: Blackburn's City Steam Press, 1863.

Redding, J. Magnus. Aids to Electro-therapeutics. Toronto: Macmillan Co., 1920.

Rice, May Cushman. Electricity in Gynecology: the Practical Uses of Electricity in Diseases of Women. Chicago: L. I. Laing and Co., 1912.

Webster, John Clarence. Diseases of Women: a Text-Book for Students and Practitioners. Edinburgh: Y.J. Pentland, 1898. 


Secondary Sources

Connor, J. T. H. “Medical Technology in Victorian Canada.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 3, 1 (1986): 97-123.

Connor, J. T. H. and Felicity Pope. “A Shocking Business: The Technology and Practice of Electrotherapeutics in Canada, 1840s to 1940s.” Material History Review 49 (1999): 60-70.

De La Pena, Carolyn Thomas. The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Build the Modern American. New York:  New York University Press, 2003.

Greenway, John L. “‘Nervous Disease:’ and Electric Medicine.” In Pseudo-Science and Society in Nineteenth-Century America. Ed. Arthur Wrobel. Pp. 46-73.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Longo, Lawrence. “Electrotherapy in Gynecology: The American Experience.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 60, 3 (1986): 343-66.    

Maines, Rachel P. The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.       

Rosner, Lisa. “The Professional Context of Electrotherapeutics.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 43, 1 (1988): 64-82.

Rowbottom, Margaret and Charles Susskind. Electricity and Medicine: A History of their Interaction. San Francisco: San Francisco Press, Inc., 1984.

Young, James Harvey. American Health Quackery: Collected Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.