As incredible as recent medical breakthroughs have been, for much of human history, our understanding of our own bodies has sometimes seemed to lag well behind our understanding of pretty much everything else in the universe. (Consider, for instance, that the Great Pyramids were built a full two millennia before we figured out that the brain might be the organ responsible for thinking, or the fact that we were able to build an atomic bomb before we were able to manufacture a basic antibiotic such as penicillin on a scale sufficient to serve the general American public.)
But there are exceptions to every rule, and here’s a pretty fascinating one: Just a few hundred years after Alcmaeon of Greece first theorized that the brain might have something to do with the thinking process (and also that the eye is made of fire and water, so … sounds like maybe he was just guessing), the ancient Romans devised an ingenious way to treat migraines and even epilepsy. As far back as 63 A.D., doctors were able to treat these conditions using electrotherapy. How is this possible, given that the advent of electricity as a utility was still another 1,800 years off or so? Answer: Electric fish.
Yep. Scribonius Largus, the personal physician to Emperor Claudius, was an early proponent of the treatment. Writing in the first century A.D., he recommended placing an electric ray on the patient’s head:
To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo [electric ray] is put on the place which is in pain, until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.
The therapy wasn’t limited to the Romans. Ancient Egyptians used electric rays to treat epilepsy, while doctors in Ancient Greece were so enamored of eletrotherapy that the Greek word for electric fish is “narka,” meaning relief from pain — the root of the term “narcotics”. Also, the term “torpedo” in military parlance derives from the electric ray Scribonius mentions, which in turn derives from the Greek word for “numb” or “paralyzed.”
Later — but still well before the advent of household electricity — Benjamin Franklin himself (naturally) would undergo the ol’ fish-zap therapy on at least two occasions, causing minor retrograde amnesia. He recommended “trying the practice on mad people.”
While the medical community eventually moved on to pharmaceuticals for treating headaches, electrotherapy has come back in vogue recently among leading migraine researchers. Multiple large-scale clinical trials are under way to test (non-aquatic) stimulatory devices for possible use in patients with severe, persistent migraines.