Introduction to the Perkins Tractor
The story of the Perkins Tractor is one of the earliest accounts of the placebo effect in western medicine. The Tractor was a device invented and patented by the American doctor, Elisha Perkins, in 1796. Dr. Perkins claimed that the special metal alloys in the Perkins Tractor could cure pain and inflammation by drawing off “the noxious electrical fluid that lies at the root of all suffering.”
The Perkins Tractor wasn’t a complicated device. It consisted of just steel and brass rods that were said to contain special metal alloys. The healing process wasn’t complicated either: Dr. Perkins simply waved the rods over patients’ bodies a few tunes. Yet the rods had unbelievable curative effects. Dr. Perkins boasted of over 5,000 cured patients – and those cases were even certified by eight professors, thirty physicians, and forty clergymen!
Had Elisha Perkins somehow stumbled upon the cure to all suffering?
Well, after a few years, the Perkins Tractor grew so successful that it caught the attention of a British doctor, John Haygarth. A cynic, Dr. Haygarth, conducted one of the world’s first controlled placebo studies. He used a Perkins Tractor to cure patients – quite successfully on many patients, and then he used a wooden replica to create the same results.
It turned out that the Perkins Tractor did seem to elicit amazing curative powers. But those powers weren’t due to any special metal alloys or the way Dr. Perkins was waving the Tractor. It was due to a simple placebo effect – patients believed in the healing Elisha Perkins was selling, their observations underscored that belief, and so they experienced healing.