Thursday, February 27, 2014


By CLAY MORE (Keith Souter)

In this issue of  The Doctor's Bag I'm heading back a little further in time to describe one of the glorious quacks of the past, who invented a system of medicine that swept across the USA and Europe. The inventor was a doctor and his system was called Tractoration.

Perkin’s Tractors and Tractoration
Dr Elisha Perkins (1741-1799) was a country doctor who was born in Norwich, Connecticut in America. In the 1790s, he advertised a medical invention that he claimed was capable of curing all manner of ailments. He modestly called the invention Perkins’ Metallic Tractors, and the system of medicine that he introduced as Tractoration.

Essentially, the metal tractors were two rods of steel and brass, which he claimed were unusual alloys, each tapered at one end. The blunt ends were held by the practitioner and the pointed ends were stroked on the patient’s body, down and outwards. It was based on the belief that metal could draw disease out of the body. And Perkins claimed great results with all manner of ailments – toothache, stomach complaints, rheumatism and gout. Gradually he extended the range of conditions to include virtually everything, even paralysis and dropsy.

He claimed that the tractors draw off the noxious electrical fluid that lay at the root of suffering.’
Other doctors tried his method and soon tractoration was enjoying a phenomenal success. Grateful patients and other doctors alike gave glowing testimonials. George Washington the first president of the USA himself tried the method, and was apparently an enthusiastic supporter. The Connecticut Medical Society, however, did not concur. They accused him of ‘delusive quackery’ and judged that he was ‘a patentee and user of nostrums.’ Accordingly, they expelled him from their society.
Despite this other medical societies were supportive and his fortune grew. More than that, his fame spread across the world. When a Danish diplomat returned to Copenhagen he took with him a set of tractors and news of the method. Twelve celebrated surgeons put the method to the test at the Royal Frederick Hospital and reported tractoration a phenomenal success.
His son, Benjamin Perkins travelled to Britain to spread the word about tractoration. Before long he received the backing of the medical profession and he was soon established in a lucrative practice in the West End of London, where smart society sought his services.

In 1798, Benjamin published The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body. And in that same year he placed an advertisement in The Times  which stated that: 
‘The tractors, with every necessary direction for using them in Families, may be had for 5 guineas the set, of Mr. Perkins, of Leicester Square; or of Mr. Frederic Smith, Chemist & Druggist, in theHaymarket’.

[A guinea was worth 21 shillings. A pound was worth 20 shillings, so a guinea was generally regarded as the unit which professionals like doctors and lawyers charged their fees.]

A year later he followed this up with the application of tractoration to animals, when he published a pamphlet: The Family Remedy; or, Perkins's Patent Metallic Tractors, For the Relief of Topical Disease of the Human Body: And of Horses

In 1803, Perkins was helped by an aristocratic friend supporter to set up a Perkinsian Institute in Soho in London, for the benefit of the poor, who were not able to shell out the five guineas a set.  This however, was not a success. The poor who flocked to the Institute for treatment claimed in vast numbers that the tractors did nothing. Perhaps their ailments were more genuine than those of polite society, or perhaps it was because they were not paying for their treatment, but they derided the method. This led some of the medical profession to put it to the test. Some experimented with animals and found tractoration to be valueless.

In 1799 Dr John Haygarth, an eminent physician who had done important work on limiting the spread of smallpox decided to put the tractors to a scientific test. He compared dummy wooden tractors that were painted to look like metal, with a set of ‘active’ metal tractors. He found that curiously both seemed to get results. His conclusion was that the metal was irrelevant and that there was some other agent at work. This he deduced was none other than the mind. He duly published his findings in a book, ‘On the Imagination as a Cause & as a Cure of Disorders of the Body.’

This is the first recorded demonstration of the placebo effect, even though it had been speculated about as early as 1772.

Tractoration soon declined and Benjamin Perkins retired to his home in America a rich man. Sadly, his father the founder of tractoration, Dr Elisha Perkins died of yellow fever while on his way to New York to promote a new antiseptic that he had invented to deal with dysentery and sore throats.

Benjamin died in 1810, and the tractors having no further advocate fell fully from grace.

Ironically, despite their worthlessness, a set of Perkins Metallic Tractors will nowadays cost you considerably more than five guineas.

 Clay More's character of Dr Logan Munro, the town doctor is appearing in several of the Wolf Creek novels

And his other new character, Doc Marcus Quigley, dentist, gambler and occasional bounty hunter continues in his quest to bring a murderer to justice. The complete collection of short stories will soon be available in paperback from  High Noon Press.


  1. That's an amazingly fast spread--less than a decade and he'd distributed his tractors on two continents. When was the placebo effect actually named? Dr Haygarth didn't use it in his title. And isn't it interesting that even after he published his findings, four years later tractoration was still popular enough to get funding for the Perkinsian Institute in Soho.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Jacquie. Yes, the power of suggestion is amazing. There was a lot of interest in this sort of thing in the eighteenth century, of course, thanks to the likes of Anton Mesmer, who developed 'animal magnetism,' or 'mesmerism' which later became known as hypnosis. Mesmer developed his technique into a quasi-religious spectacle.

    In fairness to Perkins, I think he probably believed that he had discovered a system of medicine, because he obtained results. Amazing results! Patronage had much to do with it back then and news of the method spread like wildfire.

    The term placebo was first used in a religious context. It is from the Latin and was used 'placebo domino', meaning 'I will please the Lord.'

    It was first used in a medical sense by Professor William Cullen of Glasgow University in his series of lectures on medicine and chemistry. He refers to placebos in 1772 as remedies made from sugar or bread as a medicine, to comfort the patient, even though he knew it was inactive.

    Yes, also interesting that despite Dr Haygarth's publication, it continued. But back then the journals were not viewed as they are today. Many medical folk would never read one and the public would not know that such work had been done. Very different times, when there was no regulation of practitioners and people could set up as doctors with no medical qualifications needed.

  3. Another fascinating post - I love reading your medical information! Tractoration is a bit before the era of my stories, but it's always interesting to read about all the fads and quackery people will fall for. Reminds me of those TV ads for the "amazing" products that you can never seem to find in a pharmacy or doctor's office...

  4. A GUINEA??? that was a fortune back then. YOIKS. and definitely a scam. or quackery. or SQUACKERY. I like that term the best. LOL good post, Keith!

  5. Thanks, J.E.S. I find it a fascinating subject. It is hard to sort out the actual quacks, those who knew that they wee snake-oil salesmen and those who genuinely believed that they were practising something that worked. Medicine has been full of blind endings.

    Interestingly, over in the UK pharmaceutical companies used to wine and dine doctors in order to influence them into using their drugs. That is no longer allowed nowadays and doctors are advised to prescribe generically, rather than by trade name of drugs.


  6. Thanks, Meg. Yes, a guinea was a neat looking small coin. It was used by the upper classes and by the professions. I'm sure that Professor Henry Higgins would deal only in guineas.


  7. Keith, often used tractors as a lad. Learned to drive my first John Deere at the age of nine. I can vouch personally for their effectiveness when used properly. Priced quite a bit more than 5 guineas.