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A healthy interest

Naturevolume 441pages815816 (2006) | Download Citation


Doctor Franklin's Medicine

University of Pennsylvania Press: 2006. 400 pp. $39.95, £26 081223913X | ISBN: 0-812-23913-X

If the creation of the American Republic can be taken as a high point of the Enlightenment, then Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) is a central figure. Unlike many of the other Founding Fathers, he came from a humble background and had a gentle sense of humour. Self-taught, he made his initial reputation as a printer and publisher, especially of Poor Richard's Almanac, a phenomenally successful annual in a crowded market. In the almanac, Franklin's alter ego, Poor Richard, offered advice and homespun wisdom about health and much else besides. In his own persona, Franklin was to do the same for the rest of his long life.

In Doctor Franklin's Medicine, Stanley Finger has assembled Franklin's many interactions with medicine, health and doctors. Given the attention that the iconic Franklin has already attracted from historians, there are few surprises here, but the impact of the whole package is formidable. Most doctors would have been well satisfied to have so changed the face of medicine; Franklin did it almost incidentally, in the midst of a busy life as a natural philosopher, diplomat and man of the world.

Franklin lived most of the second half of his life in England and France, on official business first on behalf of Pennsylvania, and then of the new nation. He was known abroad primarily as an electrician, a word that in those days carried rather different connotations. Through his famous experiment with a kite and lightning, he did for electricity what Newton had done with gravity: related the heavens to the Earth. It was as an electrician that Franklin was lured into the practice of medicine: he was several times asked to electrify patients with nervous disorders. Always suspicious of grand speculation, and a careful observer, he never claimed more for the therapeutic potential of his brainchild than his own experience warranted.

Several of his interactions with medicine have biographical poignancy. He advocated inoculation for smallpox (he died shortly before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination), but lost one of his own uninoculated children to the disease. Ever alert to the dangers of lead poisoning (among printers who used lead type, as well as other occupational groups), Franklin collaborated with George Baker, the British physician who exposed its high levels in cider and other alcoholic drinks kept in lead vats. Franklin himself loved Madeira and port, two likely sources of toxic levels of the metal. He suffered from gout and bladder stones, a probable consequence of the poison to which he helped alert the public.

There were other inconsistencies in his philosophy of health. He advocated the health-giving properties of fresh air, although as a social man he thrived in the clubs of urban centres such as Philadelphia, London and Paris. He also preached the virtues of exercise, believing that swimming was an undervalued activity, and swam even after he became very corpulent in his old age.

Other medical contributions were unambiguous. Franklin invented and wore bifocals, and used an ingenious mechanical arm to grasp books and other objects on high shelves, a natural consequence of his large private library. He was a founder of the first public hospital in America, the Pennsylvania Hospital. So close was his relation to medicine that the French occasionally assumed that he was medically qualified; in fact, ‘Doctor Franklin’ had several honorary degrees but no formal medical training. Nor did he apparently need it. He moved easily in medical and scientific circles, respected by the French and welcomed in Britain even after the United States had severed its ties with the mother country. Franklin had signed the Declaration of Independence, but he was always a man of peace. As he wrote in 1783: “There never was a good war, or a bad peace.”

Additional information

MORE ON BENJAMIN FRANKLIN The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius by Joyce E. Chaplin Basic Books: 2006. 362 pp. $27.50

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  1. Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London, London, NW1 2BE, UK

    • W. F. Bynum


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