At the close of the American Revolution, Connecticut surgeon Elisha Perkins had a bright future. He had taken up medicine under the tutelage of his well-respected physician father. He had provided his services to the soldiers during the war. And his home in Plainfield, Conn. was set up to include a private hospital for the well-to-do.
“The Stage seemed set for a successful career,” as one of his biographers put it, “but it was not to be.”
Instead, Elisha Perkins would pursue a line of investigation into the origins and cures of pain and disease. It would ultimately render him a pariah, labeled a quack. But not before it underwrote a prominent medical institute in London named for him, gave rise to a school of medical thought called Perkinism and made him rich.
The Metallic Tractors
It’s not clear exactly when Perkins went from being a man of science to being a charlatan. In his mind, at least, he may have never made the jump. He began working on the idea of his signature invention – the Perkins Metallic Tractors – when pondering the way human flesh responded to metal. He sensed there was some chemical or physiological response when a scalpel or other metal touched flesh.
When extracting a bad tooth, he noted that patients sometimes experienced a temporary relief of pain when he touched an inflamed gum with a metal instrument. Unfortunately, he put two and two together and got the answer five.
Perkins began experimenting with different metals to determine if one worked better than another in relieving pain before he settled on a final design.
Today if you think of a metallic tractor, a farm vehicle comes to mind. But Perkins Metallic Tractors were two small metal rods with a point on one end – one was made of brass and the other iron. By rubbing these metal utensils over an inflamed or painful area, a patient’s pain could be relieved.
Even better, for the patient, Perkins Metallic Tractors could be used by laymen as well as physicians. In 1796, Perkins decided his Tractors were finished, and he received a patent on them. His next step was marketing.
With Congress meeting in Philadelphia, Perkins decided to take his invention there. While Perkins was convinced his Tractors worked on gout, rheumatism, and a variety of painful afflictions, he also invited other physicians to test the devices for themselves.
Congressmen were impressed. George Washington bought a set Perkins Metallic Tractors for his personal use. The ministers of the city recommended them, and the hospital welcomed him with open arms. The effect of the Tractors seemed remarkable. Today, scientists would ascribe the Tractors’ impact to the placebo effect – the mind’s ability to trick a person into thinking he’s feeling better.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut endorsed Perkins in a letter to his fellow justice, John Marshall, encouraging Marshall to seek out men willing to help Perkins with his experiments on the Metallic Tractors.
The success of the Metallic Tractors nearly overwhelmed Perkins as customers from high society and low sought out his cure. Word of the miraculous powers of the Metallic Tractors soon spread to England and to Denmark, where they caused a mania.
Perkins had no shortage of partners. A man in Virginia gave up his plantation and invested everything in Metallic Tractors. Cases were reported of people selling their horse or carriage to buy a Metallic Tractor. People soon began using the Perkins Metallic Tractors on their animals – with great success, they felt.
Marketing to the Masses
Perkins began using pamphlets to promote his product, gathering testimonials and publishing, Certificates of the Efficacy of Doctor Perkins' Patent Metallic Instruments.
Hidden among the testimonials was the occasional sly wink. William Allen, D.D., noted "Having had myself for a great many years a pair of them, if they have ever relieved pain, I have found them also useful in picking walnuts."
With word of the Tractors spreading to Europe, Perkins son Benjamin traveled to England (Perkins would go there himself, too). Here Benjamin published: The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body in Removing Various Painful Inflammatory Diseases, Such as Rheumatism, Pleurisy, Some Gouty Affections, etc., Lately Discovered by Dr. Perkins of North America and Demonstrated in a Series of Experiments and Observations by Professors Meigs, Woodward, Rogers, etc., by Which the Importance of the Discovery Is Fully Ascertained, and a New Field of Inquiry Opened in the Modern Sciences of Galvanism or Animal Electricity. By Benjamin Douglas Perkins, A .M., Son of the Discoverer.
Benjamin’s days were occupied seeing patients at his home and traveling the city to provide treatment and sell Tractors; the advertised price was five guineas. Benjamin often updated his pamphlets, adding testimonials from physicians, lords, ladies and other prominent members of society who used and benefited from the Tractors.
Meanwhile, at home in the United States, Elisha Perkins turned his attention to a more serious affliction: yellow fever. The disease was rampant in American cities in 1798 and 1799, and Elisha was convinced better use of antiseptics could stop it. He offered to treat anyone suffering from yellow fever. He was quickly overwhelmed with patients and caught the disease himself. Elisha died in 1799 at age 59, but the mania for his Perkins Metallic Tractors was anything but dead.
The Establishment Strikes Back
From the start, the Metallic Tractors were not welcomed by all members of the medical establishment. Many physicians concluded that the devices were pure quackery. Plus, the fact that patients could use them to treat themselves, rather than hiring a doctor for each treatment, put them out of favor with many physicians. In 1797, the Connecticut Medical Society expelled Perkins.
Perkins’ critics argued his theories were simply an extension of the school of animal magnetism, another alternative medical theory that held every animal possessed a life force that could be manipulated to end disease. It was an unproven science.
But while doctors were raising eyebrows at Perkins’ devices, they could do nothing to stop the word-of-mouth recommendations that drove sales.
And the marketing of the devices, over time, grew more flamboyant, with Perkins claiming the metal that made up the devices was an exotic, specialized formula of his own design. New strategies for marketing were employed. A minister or doctor might receive a set of Perkins Metallic Tractors unordered by mail. The package included a simple request that if the recipient found them useful, he should make payment.
Benjamin Perkins, now residing in London, recruited some of the leading names of the city. With the help of Benjamin Franklin’s son Richard he founded the Perkinean Institute in 1802, and it grew to be one of the best funded health care facilities in London. Claims were made for the devices’ efficacy in treating toothache, rheumatism, gout, erysipelas, St. Vitus dance and lockjaw.
As Perkinism and its followers grew in number, so did its critics. English physicians conducted tests on the devices treating some patients with metallic tractors and others with wooden ones. Both were equally effective, especially if the treatment were delivered along with some ceremony and flair.
In 1809, the English poet Lord Byron published a satirical critique of modern society, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he held up the Tractors for ridicule:
Thus saith the Preacher: "Nought beneath the sun
Is new," yet still from change to change we run.
What varied wonders tempt us as they pass!
The Cow-pox, Tractors, Galvanism, and Gas,
In turns appear, to make the vulgar stare,
Till the swoln bubble bursts—and all is air!
London artist James Gillray, in 1801, made a painting skewering the followers of Perkinism. It shows an old, rotund man undergoing treatment. The causes of his illness, the painting suggests, are his bad habits that are set out on the table before him in the form of pipe, alcohol and food. An advertisement he has been reading notes: “Perkinism in all its glory being a certain cure for all disorders: Red noses, curly toes, windy bowels, broken legs, Hump Backs . . .”
Cartoons mocking the Perkins Metallic Tractors also were popular in Denmark, where Perkinism had a sizable following. They appeared in print as well as etched on other items, such as snuff boxes.
Defenders of Perkinism were just as outspoken. A group of doctors presented evidence to the he Royal College of Physicians supporting the devices.
Thomas Green Fessenden of Walpole, N.H. a 1796 graduate of Dartmouth College, published a poem in defense of the Tractors.
Eventually, however, the furor over the devices gradually faded, along with their popularity, but not before Benjamin Perkins made for himself a considerable amount of money.
A Question of Motives
Oliver Wendell Holmes in his Medical Essays, 1842-1882, noted that early in his career he occasionally encountered people still using the Tractors, but their use had largely died out.
Holmes analyzed the history of the devices and declared that he could not find proof of whether Elisha Perkins and his son were charlatans or simply misinformed. But he had a strong opinion on the question:
As to the motives of the inventor and vender of the Tractors, the facts must be allowed to speak for themselves. But when two little bits of brass and iron are patented, as an invention, as the result of numerous experiments, when people are led, or even allowed, to infer that they are a peculiar compound, when they are artfully associated with a new and brilliant discovery (which then happened to be Galvanism), when they are sold at many hundred times their value, and the seller prints his opinion that a Hospital will suffer inconvenience, “unless it possesses many sets of the Tractors, and these placed in the hands of the patients to practice on each other,” one cannot but suspect that they were contrived in the neighborhood of a wooden nutmeg factory; that legs of ham in that region are not made of the best mahogany; and that such as buy their cucumber seed in that vicinity have to wait for the fruit as long as the Indians for their crop of gunpowder.
Many people have documented the history of Elisha Perkins and his Perkins Metallic Tractors. One of the best articles on the topic is Elisha Perkins and His Metallic Tractors by William Snow Miller, published in 1935.