In the early hours of Independence Day, 2018, I found myself awake. I put it down to jet lag: I’d just returned from South Africa, where my wife—like me, a physician—and I were working with a medical charity. I decided to get up, and drank a cup of strong coffee. Within minutes, my heart was racing. I attributed this to the caffeine, but my heart rate went on rapidly accelerating. I counted beats on my watch: a hundred and eighty a minute, three times my resting rate. My chest tightened and my breathing became labored. I tried to be calm, telling myself no, it wasn’t a heart attack, merely the exhaustion of the trip and the effect of the coffee. But the symptoms were getting worse, and I broke out in a sweat. I woke my wife, who took my pulse and called an ambulance. As I lay in the ambulance, the siren blaring above me, I prayed that I would not die before making it to the emergency room.
The first days of July are said to be a perilous time to be in the hospital, because that’s when new residents begin their training. But, despite the early hour, there was a senior E.R. doctor in attendance, who quickly instructed the medical team to place intravenous catheters in my arms, take blood for testing, strap oxygen prongs over my nostrils, and perform an electrocardiogram. She said the problem appeared to be something called an atrioventricular nodal reëntrant tachycardia. I knew what that meant. Our heartbeat starts with an electrical impulse originating in the atria, the upper chambers of the heart, and then passing to the ventricles, causing them to contract. In a normal heart, there is a delay before the next heartbeat starts; in my heart, electrical impulses were circling back immediately via a rogue pathway. My ventricles were receiving constant signals to contract, giving scant time for blood to enter them and be pumped out to my tissues.
Despite this, my blood pressure hadn’t yet plummeted to an alarming level. So the first attempt to slow my heart involved having me clench my abdominal muscles, in a so-called Valsalva maneuver, which can help control irregular heartbeats by stimulating the vagus nerve. But several tries made no difference, and my breathing was becoming more labored. The attending physician then explained that she would give me, via my I.V., a dose of adenosine, a drug that arrests the flow of electrical signals in the heart. My heart would completely stop beating. Hopefully, she said, it would re-start on its own, at a normal pace. Of course, the adenosine might fail to work. She didn’t elaborate, but I knew: the next step would be to try to reboot my heart with electroshock paddles.
One dose of adenosine did nothing. But shortly after a second dose the cardiac monitor suddenly fell silent, and I glanced at the display: a flat line. My heart had stopped. I had an eerie sense of doom, a visceral feeling that something awful would happen. But then there was a kind of thud, as if I had been kicked in the chest. My heart started to beat—slowly, forcefully. Within a few minutes, the rate and rhythm returned to normal. The electrically driven pump in my chest was again supplying blood to my body.
Timothy J. Jorgensen, a professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, writes in his new book, “Spark” (Princeton), that “life is nothing if not electrical.” In our daily lives, seeing lightning in the sky or plugging our appliances into wall sockets, we tend to neglect this fact. Jorgensen’s aim, in this chatty, wide-ranging tour of electricity’s role in biology and medicine, is to show us that every experience we have of our selves—from the senses of sight, smell, and sound to our movements and our thoughts—depends on electrical impulses.
He starts with amber, the material with which humans probably first attempted to harness electricity for medical uses. Amber is the fossilized resin of prehistoric trees; when rubbed, it becomes charged with static electricity. It can attract small bits of matter, such as fluff, and emit shocks, and these properties made it seem magical. Amber pendants have been found dating back to 12,000 B.C., and Jorgensen writes that such jewelry would have been valued for much more than its beauty. In the era of recorded history, accounts of amber’s use abound. The ancient Greeks massaged the ailing with it, believing, Jorgensen writes, that its “attractive forces would pull the pain out of their bodies,” and it is the Greek word for amber—elektron—that gives us an entire vocabulary for electrical properties. In first-century Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that wearing amber around the neck could prevent throat diseases and even mental illness. The Romans also used non-static electricity from torpedo fish, a name for various species of electric ray, to deliver shocks to patients with maladies including headaches and hemorrhoids.
As late as the sixteenth century, the eminent Swiss physician Paracelsus called amber “a noble medicine for the head, stomach, intestines and other sinews complaints.” Not long afterward, the English scientist William Gilbert found that other substances, such as wax and glass, could generate charge if you rubbed them, and a German named Otto von Guericke created a crude electrostatic generator. But there was no reliable way of studying electricity until the invention of the Leyden jar, in 1745. (The jar takes its name from the city where a Dutch scientist developed it, though a German scientist achieved the same breakthrough independently around the same time.) The Leyden jar made it possible to accumulate charge from static electricity and then release it as electric current, and Jorgensen does not skimp on relating the bizarre experiments that ensued. In 1747, a French cleric named Jean-Antoine Nollet demonstrated the effect of electricity on the human body for King Louis XV:
For his next experiment, Nollet outdid himself, performing the same procedure with a chain of seven hundred Carthusian monks.
The discovery that electricity not only shocks the body but is part of what powers it came in the seventeen-eighties, when the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani conducted a series of experiments in which electric current produced movement in severed legs of frogs. Galvani attributed this discovery to what he called “animal electricity,” and for a while the study of such phenomena was known as galvanism. (Meanwhile, a sometime rival of Galvani’s, Alessandro Volta, invented the battery, giving his name to the volt.) Perhaps the most famous galvanic demonstration was conducted by Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini, in January, 1803, in London. In front of an audience, he applied electrodes to the corpse of a man, George Foster, who had just been hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of his wife and child. Jorgensen quotes a report from the Newgate Calendar, a popular publication that relayed grisly details of executions:
Some of the onlookers thought that Aldini was trying to bring Foster back to life, Jorgensen writes. He goes on to note that Aldini’s work drew the interest of the English writer and political philosopher William Godwin, who knew many electrical researchers. Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” (1818), which eventually gave us the image of Boris Karloff as the monster with electrodes sticking out from his neck. That image is pure Hollywood invention—Shelley’s monster doesn’t run on electricity—but the book mentions galvanism elsewhere and it is likely that the popular, bastardized version of the tale brings out something latent in the original.
As interest in electricity spread, there was a medical craze for electrical treatments, to address anything from headaches to bad thoughts or sexual difficulties. Jorgensen tries out the Toepler Influence Machine, a device dating from around 1900, not long before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 brought a colorful era of electro-quackery to an end. The machine generates electricity with a set of spinning glass disks, operated by a hand crank, to produce what was termed “static breeze” therapy. The electrotherapist operating the machine gauges the voltage by moving two brass balls closer together as sparks fly between them. Then, with the flip of a switch, the electricity is directed to Jorgensen’s head: