Franklin’s Forgotten Triumph: Scientific Testing

PrintPrintEmailEmail”Millions of asthmatics and hay fever sufferers could be spared the misery of severe attacks by a new vaccine,” a newspaper story begins. “Clinical trials suggest new cancer drug may save thousands of lives,” a television news anchor intones. “Children who received the medication developed long-lasting resistance to measles compared with those who received a placebo,” reads a brochure in a pediatrician’s office.

What is known as the blind protocol influences our lives in a thousand ways. Its basic elements are simple to understand. Take a group of people. Randomly assign them to one of two groups. One receives the real medicine; the other gets a placebo, and the researchers and the patients alike are blind to which is which. Every pill we take, every nasal spray or medical patch we use, has been subjected to the judgment of the blind protocol. It is the price demanded by the Food and Drug Administration before the gates to the American drug market will open.

Doing science this way is important because what researchers want or expect can influence what they observe, or how they interpret what their data says. If no one knows what he’s observing until the data collection and analysis are completed, then the potential for bias is eliminated. That is why the blind protocol has become the gold standard of the life sciences. But where did the idea come from? Even scientists are surprised to learn that it was created by Benjamin Franklin.

We don’t often think of Franklin’s scientific research except in terms of his work on electricity. But beyond his electrical work, diplomacy, and statesmanship, he’s also historically significant for his contributions to a half-dozen other disciplines. He was the first meteorologist in America, the first geographer, the first oceanographer, an inventor of medical apparatus, and, least known of all, the first parapsychologist—a student of extraordinary and anomalous human functioning. It was in this last capacity that he created the blind protocol.

In 1778 Franklin was in Paris, as America’s ambassador to the court of King Louis XVI, when the eighteenth century’s greatest medical rogue, Franz Anton Mesmer, arrived from Vienna, in a cloud of celebrity and controversy. Mesmer had left Vienna in a hurry. He had been asked to treat Marie Paradies, a pianist who appears to have suffered from hysterical blindness. After she received his treatment, her eyesight was temporarily restored, but the change was so overwhelming that it shattered her nerves and she lost the ability to play her instrument. Unhappily for Mesmer, Marie Paradies was the goddaughter 66 of the Austro-Hungarian empress, Maria Theresa, and the empress took umbrage at what had happened. Mesmer prudently decamped to Paris, which was where he encountered Franklin.

Well-trained in both medicine and theology, Mesmer was a charming, rational, cultivated man; he commissioned several works composed by Mozart. But he also had a flamboyantly theatrical style and more than a whiff of the con; he had startling theories of illness and disturbing and erotically tinged methods of treatment.

His patients, known as sommambules , were described by one observer as mostly “hysterical bourgeois women,” and he treated them in group “magnetic séances.” Like many eighteenth-century intellectuals, Mesmer was interested in alchemy and astrology, and he cloaked his treatments in the symbols of these already contested fields. The sommambules sat holding hands around a large wooden tub filled with powdered glass and magnetized iron filings. They were relaxed and brought into rapport by the sweet haunting tones of the glass harmonica, an instrument invented, coincidentally, by Franklin. The glass harmonica was played behind a curtain covered with astrological symbols, and it produced ethereal sounds that were the eighteenth century’s equivalent of modern electronic consciousness music. After a while Mesmer, cloaked by a long purple robe, would sweep into the room. The effect was dramatic. In a performance that was a cross between that of a modern entertainment hypnotist and a psychotherapist, he would talk the sommambules into a deep trance and give them healing suggestions. Then he would touch them with a white metal wand, sometimes rubbing them. And finally he would command them to awaken, rested and cured. It often worked, and Mesmer’s success made him popular with laypeople and feared by the medical establishment.

How Mesmer discovered the fundamentals of hypnotism and stumbled onto the rudiments of the psychophysical self-regulation that lies at the core of such modern treatments as psychotherapy, hypnotism, and biofeedback is unknown. It may be that he just observed that a relaxed trance state produced a kind of anesthesia that gave subjects physiological control over their bodies and minds. However it happened, he seems to have sincerely believed he had discovered a cure for all illnesses.