Put On Those Blindfolds
Last week I mentioned the possibility that the equipment
malfunction in the Genesis space capsule may have been due to
what might be termed a “cerebral” malfunction. Someone
submitted backward drawings. Recently, I had what some might
consider my own cerebral malfunction. There we were, my wife
and I, waiting in the parking lot of a local swimming pool for a
bus to take us to Philadelphia, where we were to visit the new
Constitution Hall and attend a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.
Was I wrong? I was quite upset when, just a minute before our
scheduled departure, there was not a soul in the parking lot. My
keen mind came up with the idea that my wife should drive home
to check her information and make sure we had the right date,
time and place. I would stay in case the bus did show up.
It did, a whole minute late! Unbeknownst to us, the bus trip had
originated in another town and I was left to defend my position
that it was logical to send my wife home to check. The group
leader (it was a group we hadn’t traveled with before) and
passengers disagreed with my logic. The leader was upset at
having to hold the bus for 20 minutes until my wife arrived back
on the scene. As we started off, I noted that our bus driver was
Calvin (not his real name). A few weeks ago, I talked of a trip to
New York for another concert and the driver, new to the route,
ending up going some 60 blocks out of our way via Harlem.
It was Calvin, in the same bus. Sure enough, Cal missed a turn
right off the bat, leading to another 5-10 minute delay in reaching
our pickup point for the rest of the group. Then, as we neared
Philadelphia, he missed the exit for the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Speaking of Franklin, let’s talk about the testing pharmaceutical
companies must go through to ascertain the safety and efficacy
of a new drug before being approved for marketing. The gold
standard is the double blind protocol in which neither the doctors
nor the patients know which patients are receiving the real drug
and which are receiving a placebo.
Did you know that Ben Franklin was responsible for the first
blind test of a medical remedy? I learned this in an article titled
“Franklin’s Forgotten Triumph: Scientific Testing” by Stephen
Schwartz in the October American Heritage magazine. Old Ben
was stationed in Paris as the American Ambassador to the court
of King Louis XVI when a fellow by the name of Franz Anton
Mesmer arrived in Paris from Vienna. Mesmer was a
controversial figure who became widely known for his use of
what he termed “animal magnetism” in treating patients suffering
from a variety of ills.
Mesmer used a glass harmonica (invented by Franklin) to supply
“sweet haunting tones” during his “magnetic s ances”. During
the s ances, the patients were seated around a big tub containing
powdered glass and magnetized iron filings. After the patients
were lulled by the strains of the harmonica, Mesmer appeared in
a purple robe and proceeded essentially to hypnotize the patients
and suggest they would awaken healed and cured. While in the
trance, they might be rubbed or touched with a metal wand.
Often, the patients were, or at least considered themselves cured.
Although denied a medical license by the French, Mesmer
became extremely popular and, after six years in Paris, proposed
building a hospital dedicated to animal magnetism treatments.
He was able to raise a large sum of money for the project.
However, the Parisian medical establishment wasn’t impressed
and their concerns prompted Louis XVI to form a commission to
look into animal magnetism. He asked Franklin to head the
commission. Franklin was in ill health and was pretty much
confined to his home but he accepted the task and showed keen
insight even before the commission began its work. He is quoted
to the effect that a rich city has people who never enjoy good
health because they are constantly taking new medicines,
upsetting the natural order of things. He speculated that if such
individuals are persuaded to give up their drugs and expect to be
cured by a doctor’s touch or an iron rod pointed at them, they
find themselves better off but not for the right reason.
Without Franklin, the committee sat in on a number of the
s ances and came back to him with no firm conclusions. He saw
the need for something more scientific and arranged for testing in
his residence, including himself among the subjects. Again,
results were mixed, Franklin being unaffected by the treatment.
Franklin then decided that the patients should be blindfolded –
the first “blind” test! The blindfolded patients were unable to tell
whether or not they had been “magnetized”.
Another of Mesmer’s claims, supported by a Dr. d’Elson, who
was licensed, was that any living thing could be magnetized.
Franklin ran another test in which d’Elson touched his wand to
one tree in the garden. Then a young boy was blindfolded and
led to various trees, the crux of the experiment being that he said
he was feeling magnetized as he approached the “magnetized”
tree when he actually was being led away from it.
Franklin’s was the lead signature on the committee report, which
unanimously denounced the Mesmer treatments. Mesmer left
Paris, leaving behind the word “mesmerize” in his wake. The
report, issued in 1784, was known to one John Haygarth, an
English physician. He was asked to evaluate a claimed remedy
involving stroking the patient with two rods, one brass and one
iron. Haygarth made fake rods out of wood that looked like the
real iron and brass rods and even coated rods with wax. Unlike
the iron and brass rods, the waxed rods would prevent any
currents passing from rod to patient. The patients were blind as
to which rods were used.
As with animal magnetism, the brass/iron rod treatments proved
worthless. Haygarth had added the feature of a fake treatment, a
placebo, to the blind testing. Like Franklin, Haygarth concluded
that the effect of the treatment depended on the expectations and
imagination of the patient. Today, over two centuries later, the
placebo effect is still being questioned and researched.
But I’ve digressed. We did make it to Philadelphia and the
concert, featuring a superb performance by Yefim Bronfman of
Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, was most enjoyable, as was
our visit to Constitution Hall. There, I was taken with a room set
up so visitors can walk among realistic bronze figures of our
founding fathers as they gathered to formulate our Constitution.
The figures were sculpted life size and as accurate to appearance
as could be determined from documents and portraits of the time.
It’s a hands-on exhibit; lots of pictures were being taken of
children, and adults, embracing, shaking hands and interacting
with the delegates. I was particularly impressed with George
Washington’s stature. He really was an imposing fellow.
Ben Franklin was there, seated but with was a shiny spot on his
nose. We commented on this to a docent and she said that all the
contacts with visitors has led to breaking off of his glasses a
number of times they have decided to give up on them. Back in
2002, I met and chatted with Ben Franklin when he appeared at
the centennial meeting of The Electrochemical Society, of which
I’m the historian. OK, it was a gentleman, well known in the
area for assuming the role of Ben Franklin at various meetings or
other Philadelphia functions. He did a great job. I mentioned to
the docent that I had met him and wondered if he was still
around. It turns out that she’s a retired teacher, knows old Ben
and he suggested that she would enjoy the docent’s job at
Constitution Hall. It’s a small world.
Finally, a plug for Calvin. The New Jersey Turnpike was a
parking lot on the way home and I will never know where or how
he managed a circuitous route leaving and reentering the turnpike
beyond the congestion. Then, after pulling into the parking lot to
drop off our first group of passengers, he found that some
unthinking character had parked in a spot blocking him from
using the exit! He had to wait for all the group’s cars to leave the
lot before he could skillfully back up the bus and exit via the
entrance. I can imagine Cal telling his wife that night about the
parking idiot and the other idiot who sent his wife home a minute
before the scheduled pickup time!
Allen F. Bortrum