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History of Medicine |

Magnetic Healing, Quackery, and the Debate about the Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields

Roger M. Macklis, MD
[+] Article, Author, and Disclosure Information

From Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. Requests for Reprints: Roger M. Macklis, MD, Harvard Joint Center for Radiation Therapy, 50 Binney Street, Boston, MA 02115. Acknowledgments: The author thanks Mr. Richard Wolfe and the staff of the Rare Books Collection of the Countway Medical Library. Grant Support: In part by grant CA-49017 from the National Cancer Institute and a Junior Faculty Research Award from the American Cancer Society.

Copyright ©2004 by the American College of Physicians

Ann Intern Med. 1993;118(5):376-383. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-118-5-199303010-00009
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Although the biological effects of low-frequency electromagnetic radiation have been studied since the time of Paracelsus, there is still no consensus on whether these effects are physiologically significant. The recent discovery of deposits of magnetite within the human brain as well as recent, highly publicized tort litigation charging adverse effects after exposure to magnetic fields has rekindled the debate. New data suggest that electromagnetic radiation generated from power lines may lead to physiologic effects with potentially dangerous results. Whether these effects are important enough to produce major epidemiologic consequences remains to be established. The assumption of quackery that has attended this subject since the time of Mesmer's original “animal magnetism” investigations continues to hamper efforts to compile a reliable data base on the health effects of electromagnetic fields.


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Figure 1.
Franz Anton Mesmer.

The self-proclaimed discoverer of “animal magnetism,” depicted at age 44 years.

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Figure 2.
Caricature of Elisha Perkins' treatment approach by James Gillray (1801) entitled “Metallic Tractors”.

Original engraving is in the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland; reproduced from reference 62.

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Figure 3.

C. J. Thacher, president of the Chicago Magnet Company. He was dubbed the “King of the magnetic quacks” by Collier's Magazine.

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Figure 4.

Albert Abrams (1863-1924) with one of his electric frequency modulating machines. Original photo from the San Francisco Public Library; reproduced from reference 7.

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