(Investigator 146, 2012 September)

"About a billion dollars a year is now spent on "magnet therapy" which is claimed to eliminate many symptoms and diseases. Basic scientific principles indicate that all of this money is wasted." (Flamm, 2006, p. 26).

The "science" of the ancient pre-scientific world was really nothing more than a bizarre combination of religious and primitive superstitious beliefs. The "scientists of that age (philosophers) believed that all life had been created by, and from, a mysterious animating energy that was often used by some deity to animate lifeless material, e.g. "...God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7). Some believed that, at the mundane level, the earthly sphere, everything was filled with this life-force, even the rocks and minerals. Normally, however these latter substances remained inert, for although they did possess the life-force it was their nature to be immobile and to lack the power to "create" life.

There was however one exception to this rule, this was the substance known as lodestones which appeared to have the ability to "animate" (or "gave life") to iron by attracting it towards itself. This led to the belief amongst many of the ancients, particularly Animists such as Thales, Anaxagoras and Aristotle, that lodestones were actually "alive" and possessed a spirit or soul that was related to the divine or celestial powers. (Barnes, 1979, p. 7)
Because lodestones were believed to be composed of a quintessential superlunary material, their magnetic energy was considered to be an exception to the normal laws that governed the mundane world. This celestial attribution of lodestones may have come from the fact that lodestones were often found in meteorites, or were formed by lightning striking bodies of magnetite; such origins leading to the erroneous conclusions that lodestones either, came from the heavens, or else, were imbued with heavenly energy. Their "celestial origins" gave rise to the belief that their magnetic qualities were closely connected to the heavenly astrological influences that were projected down to the Earth below.

Such beliefs were reinforced by the observations that, even when lodestones were reduced to small slivers and floated on water, each piece continued to point north, to that mysterious region of the Earth associated with the arrival of celestial energy. This suggested to the ancients that lodestones retained a "memory" of their celestial origins, and, as Barrett (1801) noted, it was widely believed that this strange magnetic power had been, "...ordained for the use of man, and for the curing of the various disorders incident to human nature..." (p. 11)

In ancient times sickness and disease was considered to be a depletion of vital energy in the body, and so, it must have seemed logical to conclude that, since lodestones could project a life-force into other substances then perhaps they could also project their energy into the sick.

Lacking any proper scientific understanding of the principles of magnetism the ancients appear to have concluded that just as the life-force of lodestones could "give life" to iron it might also be able to replace the depleted energy levels of the sick body, reanimating them, and perhaps, at the same time in a manner similar to which they could attract iron, lodestones might also "attract" the sickness out of the body. According to Cassileth (1998), by the twelfth century, lodestones were being used to treat such ailments as gout, arthritis, baldness and a variety of other health problems. They were even claimed to alleviate melancholy and to possess aphrodisiac powers. (p. 299)

Although it is generally agreed that Paracelsus, (1493-1541), was the first physician known to use "magnets" for healing, while he probably did use lodestones, more generally, when he spoke of using "magnets" for healing purposes, it appears he was using the term metaphorically, to refer to "biological magnets".

Paracelsus believed in the Macrocosm-Microcosm, a concept in which events upon the Earth were influenced by the larger events in the cosmos. As such, humans were perceived as a "minute cosmos", "... a reproduction in miniature of the earth, having, like it, the poles and magnetic properties.” (Spence, 2003, p. 216) On this basis Paracelsus appears to have assumed that the forces of the macrocosm applied to human inhabitants of the Earth, the mundane world; for Paracelsus the principal cosmic force was the Archeus, a universal life-force, "...the power which contains the essence of life and character of everything." (Hartmann, 1896, p. 31) He perceived the Archeus as a form of universal energy, a life-principle, that could enter inanimate material and not only give it life, but also an innate form of intelligence; in this fashion it served for the individual's lifetime as a host body, a temporary physical "vehicle" for the Archeus. (Wood, 2005, pp. 15-16). Yet despite giving life to this substance, the Archeus always remained a separate entity. In time it would return to its place of origin in the heavens, discarding the former body which, like all earthly substances, would decay and return to dust.

Paracelsus referred to this physical substance that had been given temporary life by the Archeus, as the mumia, and inferred that while the Archeus was present in this physical body, the mumia, "absorbed" some of the life-energy of the Archeus, and that the mumia even retained some of this life-energy for a short time after death, or, in any bodily residue, such as blood, hair, nail cuttings, excremental material, and urine that was separated from the body. It was believed that when such bodily detritus was dried it became, "...hungry to attract vitality again". (Hartmann, 1896, p. 187)

Since sickness was believed by many to be an overabundance of vitality, it seemed logical that mumia could be used to draw out this excess of energy that was causing the sickness, for, just as, "A magnet may be prepared from iron that will attract iron...a magnet may be prepared out of some vital substance that will attract vitality. Such a magnet is called the "magnes microscopi" and it is prepared out of substances that have remained for a time in the human body and are penetrated by his vitality." (Hartmann, 1993, p. 138)
Thus it appears that the "magnets" Paracelsus used were primarily of a biological nature, prepared from human detritus, and, as described above, were used to sympathetically attract sickness out of the body, in a similar fashion to a magnet attracting iron.

Paracelsus also believed that as this special "magnet" drew out the disease, at the same time, the inflammation in that area would be relieved by a "... superabundance of magnetism carried to that place by the rush of the blood." (Hartmann, 1896, p. 188)

The next step in the process was to dispose of the biological magnet and the diseased matter it contained. The material was disposed of, usually buried, and, as it slowly rotted away, so too the patient's sickness was thought to gradually disappear. As Hartmann (1896) noted, it was quite common, " ... especially in Mohammedan countries, to see packages lying in the road tied together with a string. On opening them, hair, bloody rags, excrements, etc. will be found." (p. 188)

Paracelsus did not originate this form of treatment; he merely developed a variation of the ancient technique of "transference". Since the ancients believed that sickness was as an actual physical substance, an ethereal "fluid" like substance, that could be planted in the human body at the whim of evil spirits, or by a magician or witch using spells or curses; it must have made sense to assume that if it could be implanted it could also be "transferred" out of the sick. However, since the sickness was perceived as being "alive" it could not simply be released into the air, for it would find another victim to enter. This meant that it had to be transferred into another living body, usually an animal. Thus, in ancient Mesopotamia the sick would place a loaf of bread on their head and recited a sacred incantation three times, the loaf was then wiped over their body from head to feet, and the loaf then thrown to an animal; if the animal ate the loaf the evil would be transferred to that creature; this was the reasoning behind the Biblical reference in which an evil spirit is expelled from a possessed man and transferred into a herd of pigs. (Mark 5:11-13) During the Middle Ages there were tales of the Caladrius, a mythical lark, that was brought to the bed of the sick, if the illness was to be fatal the bird would turn its back on the sufferer, however, if they were going to recover it would face the patient, absorb the disease, and then, " with it towards the sun, vomit it into the upper atmosphere and allow it to disperse. This would restore the patient to health. [Clark, 1975, p. 109]

As Mackay (1989) mentioned, the transference technique used by Paracelsus was to take the "magnet" and mix it with soil in a pot in which were seeds that had a "homogeneous" relationship to the disease. Each day the diseased organ was washed, transferring the disease into the water, which was then poured into the pot, "transferring" the disease into the seeds. The seeds were then planted in the ground and, as the plant grew larger, the disease would decrease, until once the plant was fully grown, the disease would disappear. Using such methods Paracelsus claimed to have treated a variety of physical disorders, including the falling sickness, (epilepsy), discharges from the eyes, ear and nose, fistulas, ruptures, jaundice, dropsy (oedema), hysteria, and even cancer. While the logic behind his therapy seems rather primitive, it is very likely that, for some, the treatment was effective, not because of magnetism, but because of suggestion and the placebo effect.

The basis of the concept of transference was an ancient belief that, since everything in the cosmos had been created by a single "divine" entity, all parts were inexorably linked to every other part by a sympathetic (positive), or antipathic (negative), connection, "...we affirm there is a natural sympathy and antipathy amongst all things throughout the whole universe," (Barrett, 1801, p. 5).

This was the basis of contagious or "sympathetic magic" the belief that there is a "...magical sympathy, which is supposed to exist between a man and any severed portion of his person, such as his hair or nails..." (Frazer, 1959, p. 31) It was believed this sympathetic process could be used to both harm and heal; one of the strangest applications of this theory was that of the physician Johannes Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644) who in 1621, described how wounds could be cured by a substance known as the weapon salve. The bizarre aspect of his theory was that the salve was not applied to the injury itself but to the weapon that had inflicted the injury. Even if the victim and the weapon were separated by a great distance, it made no difference for the "sympathetic connection" was considered to be so powerful, it could "bridge" any distance!

There were similar bizarre beliefs concerning lodestones and magnetism. The mysterious magnetic energy was not only claimed to be an effective form of contraceptive, but when placed on the navel of a pregnant woman, it would ensure an easy delivery, and was used especially in cases of difficult deliveries, (Lindberg, 1978, p. 420). Because magnetic energy could be negated by garlic or onions, sailors on many ships, were forbidden to eat these vegetables, for fear that their breath should "demagnetise" the compass needles. Giambattista delia Porta (1543-1615), an Italian physiognomist, claimed in his book, Magiae Naturalis Libri, that a lodestone could be used to determine the faithfulness of a wife. Placed under her pillow, if she was faithful, she would be drawn to her husband, embracing him during her sleep; however, the stone would repel an unfaithful wife, rolling her out of the marriage bed. Other version claimed that, if she had been unfaithful, the stone would cause her to unwittingly confess her sins in her sleep.

In 1600 William Gilbert, who had studied magnetism scientifically, finally explained in his book, De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure, ("On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth"), that what attracted compass needles was the Earth itself, (magnus ipse est globus terrestris). (Livingston, 1996, p. 27) He dismissed many of the irrational claims about the mystical powers of lodestones as nonsense, asserting they would not cause unchaste wives to fall out of bed, neither would they, when ground into a plaster, draw large iron objects from the body, cure headaches, or, when used with incantations, cure insanity.

A major contributor to the use of "magnetism" as an alternative form of therapy was Dr. Franz Mesmer. In 1766, while studying for a third doctorate, in medicine, he submitted a paper entitled, De planetarum influxu, (The Influences of the Planets on the Human Body), which examined the traditional astrological belief "…that the planets exercised an influence upon the human body through the instrumentality of a universal fluid, a kind of impalpable and invisible gas in which all bodies were immersed." (Zweig, 1932, p. 19) He assumed this healing "fluid" was universally present, throughout the cosmos and so called it, gravitas universalis, (universal gravity).

He believed that, like gravity, it exerted an actual force upon the entire physical sphere. However, after gaining his doctorate he moved on to other areas and soon forgot the concept. It was not until about 1774 that he was to recall this earlier work. Having established himself as a highly regarded doctor in Vienna, he learned that his friend, the astronomer Father Maximilian Hell, had successfully cured the sick wife of a distinguished visitor to Vienna using a magnet.

Curious about the treatment, Mesmer visited the lady and having established the validity of her cure he decided to investigate the healing power of magnets for himself; to this end he obtained several magnets from Father Hell. It was apparently around this time that he recalled his earlier thesis on gravitas universalis, and he concluded that he must have been in error and that the healing power of the magnets suggested that the universal force might be magnetic in origin rather than gravitational as he had earlier assumed!

During the next decade as he used magnets for healing, he evolved the 'fluidic' theory of 'animal magnetism' in which he concluded that everything in the universe, including humans, were connected with, and filled with an invisible fluid that contained magnetic properties, and that when this fluid became depleted or out of balance within the body, the particular individual would experience sickness and poor health.
His theories and treatments were a combination of various arcane beliefs and techniques; as Shor (1979) noted, they combined astrology, mysticism, vitalism, traditional faith healing methods, the laying on of hands, with, "...a disguised version of medieval demonic exorcism." [p. 20]. Yet, while his ideas concerning animal magnetism were total nonsense, the fact was that his treatments were generally effective.
However, these "cures" were not due to animal magnetism, to mesmerism, or to any other theories of Mesmer; what was affecting these cures was the overwhelming influence on his patients of the power of suggestion. This same principle continues to be the basis of most forms of alternative healing, and explains why, despite their lack of theoretical validity and their use of useless substances, they can, and do, cure certain individuals! Essentially what Mesmer had done was to rediscover the ancient art of trance induction and how to apply suggestion to the healing process, ideas that although known for thousands of years, were not really understood.

The fact that that Mesmer's cures had nothing whatsoever to do with "magnetism" was soon realized. In 1784 King Louis XVI appointed a commission which included such notables as Lavoisier and Guillotin, while Benjamin Franklin, the American Ambassador was elected as the commission President, to investigate the claims being made by Mesmer and his followers.

As McConkey and Barnier (1991) noted, the Commission soon concluded that although Mesmer and his followers could produce cures, they had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any mysterious 'magnetic' force or so-called animal magnetism; rather they were primarily the result of the subject's beliefs and expectations which were activated by suggestions by the Mesmerist.

This was an important discovery for it confirmed just how important human suggestibility and imagination were in the healing process. Even today such findings offer a more logical explanation for the operation of alternative and complimentary therapies where the "medicines" themselves generally play no role in the cure other than to provide an expectation that they will produce a cure; such a process is now known as the placebo effect.

From the very beginning there had been many who had rejected Mesmer's claims concerning the so-called animal magnetism, and, in 1813, Abbe Jose Custodio di Faria openly claimed that the effects of mesmerism were not the result of some mysterious magnetic fluid but were in fact an aspect of human behaviour, a form of suggestion. He claimed that, rather than being "magnetized", patients were falling into a condition of "lucid sleep" and he demonstrated how individuals could be easily placed into a trance, without magnets, simply by sitting them down and commanding them to concentrate, and to go to sleep.

The 18th and 19th centuries were the glory days of the unfettered commercialism of quack electrical products and ideas. Two of the most famous magnetic practitioners of that age were Dr. James Graham and Dr. Elisha Perkins. In the 1760's Dr. James Graham lived in America where he became conversant with the electrical theories of the day; he became convinced that electricity and magnetism offered the panacea to cure all human illness. Returning to England in 1775 he began to offer the public access to his marvelous electrical cures, (these were generally electric shocks delivered through a headset or a "magnetic throne"), and then, in 1779, he opened his popular Temple of Health and Hymen. For two guineas visitors could wander through the richly perfumed and decorated rooms of the ornately decorated building. They could listen to relaxing music played by ensembles, examine the electrical machines, purchase a range of his "electrical" medicines, or even listen to a talk by Dr, Graham himself extolling the marvels of his magnetic and electrical cures. There is little doubt that much of the attraction of the temple came from the presence of attractive young women in flimsy costumes, posing provocatively as classical nymphs, and engaging in erotic performances amongst the statues.

As Livingston (1996) noted, of all the various electric and magnetic contraptions, all aimed at a gullible public, the most famous, and most popular, was his "celestial bed". Widely advertised as a means of sexual therapy the bed was 3.65 metres (12 feet) by 2.75 meters (9 feet),
"...supported by forty glass pillars within which musical instruments provided celestial sounds...Advertised as a cure for sterility the bed derived most of its power from fifteen hundred pounds weight of artificial and compound of magnets" (Livingston, 1996, p. 211 ).

Those wishing to boost their sexual performance, and especially those wishing to father an exceptional child, could spend a period of time on the bed for a fee of £50. Although a vast amount of money in those days, so popular was the celestial bed that even when Dr. Graham increased the fee to an amount of £500 there was still no shortage of customers.

Similarly, the American Dr. Elisha Perkins appears to have been acquainted with the various 18th century experiments into electricity and, according to Young (1972), was conversant with the work of Galvani. In the 1780's, while cutting the leg of a dead frog, Galvani had accidentally touched the brass hook holding the leg with his steel scalpel, causing the leg to twitch; this reaction convinced Galvani that this response was due to the presence of animal magnetism within the dead frog.

In 1795, while treating a female patient with painful ankles Perkins gently drew the blade of a penknife down from her calf to the ankle and, to his surprise the pain disappeared. After some experimentation, including using an iron comb to cure headaches, Perkins became convinced that the cause of much of his patients' illness was the presence of an excessive amount of the magnetic animal fluid in their bodies, and that by using a metallic object to "draw out" this excess energy from their bodies, they would be cured.

After experimenting with various everyday metal objects, in 1796 he designed a pair of metal implements, his "Perkins Metallic Tractors" which he claimed could successfully "attract" this excessive magnetic fluid from the body of patients. He patented these devices, receiving the first medical patent ever issued in the United States.

The tractors were each 8 cm. long, tapering from a rounded end to a narrow point, flat on one side and rounded on the other; one was gold coloured the other silver. Although

Perkins claimed they were made of a special "secret" metal alloy, they were in fact simply made from steel and brass. These tractors were used alternatively, touched to the painful area of the body first, then moved around in this general area for about twenty minutes, always moving outwards from the central area of pain, "drawing" the pain away from the epicentre to "discharge" it in the outer regions.

Although expelled from the Connecticut medical association in the following year for "delusive quackery", his tractors were an immediate success. They were investigated by a number of doctors in the United States and Denmark, who issued favourable reports on their effectiveness. So popular were they that they were soon being exported to Britain by his son Benjamin.
However, after his death in 1799, certain British doctors questioned their effectiveness and in that same year Dr. John Haygarth made up a set of wooden tractors, painted to look like the originals and treated five rheumatic patients with them. Four of these patients reported significant relief from their pain. After the experiment was repeated again, using "genuine" tractors, and the results were found to be the same, it was realized that the tractors really did nothing other than to activate the imagination of the patients. After Dr. Haygarth published his findings in a text entitled "On the Imagination as a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body" the appeal of the tractors in Britain diminished, however, they remained popular in the United States until the death of Benjamin in 1810.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the large scale marketing of numerous quack electrical and magnetic devices. Designed to be used on every part of the body; they included magnetic insoles, often advertised as "foot batteries", an electro-magnetic collar designed to be worn around the neck, (this gained the epithet of "the Magic Horse Collar" — McCoy, 2000, p. 37), the Magnecoil, that produced a "magnetic field" to promote perfect elimination, the Electropoise, essentially a length of brass pipe closed at both ends with a piece of wire attached, leading to an electrode mounted on a strap for attachment to the wrist or ankle. So popular was this device that its "inventor" Hercules Sanche, soon replaced it with an "advanced" model, the Oxydonor, that was shorter in length and, as McCoy noted, "...contained a stick of carbon (instead of being empty) and sold for $35 instead of $10." (p. 46). So popular was this product that it was soon copied by competitors who marketed their products under various names including Dr. Filloon's Oxybon, the Farador, the Oxypathor, the Thermo-Ozone Generator, and the Radial Active Appliance.

Magnetic products featured in Sears catalogues during the late 1800s with magnetic undergarments available for many parts of the body, these included caps, throat and lung shields, belts for both men and women, lower leggings, mittens, knee caps and insoles. One company, Thacher Magnetic Shield Company boasted their "shields" contained, "...eight hundred powerful Magnetic Storage Batteries...guaranteed to hold their power." (McCoy, 2000, p. 36)

Today a variety of bogus magnetic products continued to attract large numbers of gullible buyers. Magnetic ankle, knee, elbow, shoulder and back supports, necklaces, bracelets insoles and even one for the penis to enhance sexual potency. A range of devices claimed to "magnetize" water and other liquids, to enhance their quality and purity, are also readily available. One product, the Shooter Buddy, a magnetic receptacle for holding bottles or individual glasses of wine, claims their products, which contain powerful Neodymium rare Earth magnets, "... replicates ten years of slow aging in just a few days. The longer a beverage remains, the greater the effect." How does this marvelous process occur, we are told that the magnetic field realigns the particles in the beverage! Another similar product mentioned by Allen (2004) was the “Wine Clip" a device containing "six rare earth magnets" which is clipped onto the neck of a wine bottle; it is claimed by its manufacturer that, as the wine is poured these magnets, "... break down the 'large molecules" of red wine's impurities and tannins as the wine passes through the magnetic field" (p. 92).

One popular modern product are magnetic woolen underlays, which contain a number of magnets. This is placed under a bed-sheet and, according to the pseudo-scientific advertising, since blood contains iron, it will be attracted by the magnets in the underlay, and as the person sleeps, the magnets will draw oxygenated blood into the painful areas of the body, reducing pain and providing physical relief. How the magnets can be so specific as to only draw blood into the painful areas is never explained.

Moreover, if the magnets could attract the blood in this way, one would expect the blood to pool in the areas adjacent to the magnetic fields, effectively blocking the flow of blood in the body, fortunately, this does not occur, for, as Livingston (1998) indicated, the iron in blood, unlike metallic iron, consists, "…of isolated iron atoms within large haemoglobin molecules...and remains magnetically independent." (p. 30), in other words, the iron in human blood is not attracted by magnets!

Furthermore, tests on the intensity of the magnetic fields of these underlays reveal that no electromagnetic energy actually passes through the fleece, thus, any relief experienced by the individual, is entirely imaginary. So, rather than pay hundreds of dollars for these worthless products, anyone who feels the need for such therapy is advised to place a number of fridge magnets underneath their bed sheet; while these will have absolutely no effect whatsoever, this is exactly the same effect as the more expensive underlay, and at least, it is a much more economical option!

Most properly conducted studies into the effectiveness of static magnets as a treatment for various health disorders indicate quite clearly that such magnets do nothing, other than to act as a placebo. Indeed as Finegold and Flamm (2006) pointed out, if magnets could affect humans, the massive electromagnetic fields created by modern medical equipment, such as magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRI) would have a very noticeable effect on the bodies of patients, yet the fact is, "...the much higher magnetic fields of MRI show neither ill nor healing effects." (p. 4)

Although some studies suggest magnets can have a healing effect, there are often methodological flaws in such studies. For example, when testing real magnets against sham magnets, subjects tend to test the "magnets" by checking if they will pick up small metal objects such as pins; if they fail to do so, they know the magnets are not real.

Although Hinman, Ford and Heyl (2002) indicated that placing static magnets over painful knee joints for a period of two weeks did appear to indicate a reduction in reported pain levels and enhanced movement, the actual agent responsible for these changes was not clear, and, as often occurs in such studies, it was suggested that further research was required to determine the actual physiological mechanisms responsible for this analgesic effect.

What is most commonly found in studies on the effectiveness of magnets for therapeutic
purposes is that the results for those groups using genuine magnets and sham magnets are invariably so similar that it is impossible to distinguish between them; thus, in a study on carpal tunnel syndrome pain Finegold (1999) reported that while both groups of subjects, those using either magnets or sham-magnets, reported a decreased level of pain, there was no statistical difference between the results from both groups. Such results strongly support the idea that the agent of change is the influence of suggestion and the subsequent placebo effect, rather than the magnets themselves. Similarly Carter, Hall, Aspy and Mold (2002) found that,

"The delivery of a unipolar static magnetic field through a magnetized device directly applied to the point of greatest wrist pain resulted in no significant difference in relief of pain when compared with an identical placebo device." (p. 40)
While magnetic therapy is often claimed to be an ideal treatment for lower back pain, Collacott, Zimmermann, White and Rindone (2000) found the magnets had no effect on pain relief in this area.

As Livingston (1998) observed, any claims that magnets can produce positive therapeutic effects, "...should still be regarded with considerable scepticism" (p. 30). He concluded that many of the testimonials concerning magnetic healing can be attributed to the placebo effect, or other reasons, such as the physical support provided to parts of the body by the various supports in which the magnets are located.

In an examination of the use of literature relating to the use of magnetic products, from Hellenic times to the present, Basford (2002) noted that while electricity and magnetism has always remained popular throughout history as a means of therapy, they have always appealed more to those involved in pseudoscience and to an "unsophisticated" public. Orthodox practitioners have tended to view such ideas as little more that popular fads, and, lacking any objective evidence of efficacy, have rejected, and continue to reject, such ideas as having no place in legitimate medical practice.

As Cassileth (1998) noted, "Contemporary claims for alternative uses of electricity as therapy have not been substantiated." (p. 301) Possibly the most worthwhile advice concerning magnetic therapy comes from Choice magazine; in an article on magnetic therapy they concluded, "Based on the evidence so far, Choice would recommend giving static magnet therapy a miss. (Choice, 2004, p. 24)


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From: Eddie, L. 2008 A Skeptical Look At Alternative Therapies And Beliefs, Digital Reproductions