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A brief history of magnets and medicine

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Some say the use of magnetic therapy with natural magnets, or lodestones, goes back to 2000 BC when it was used by Aztec Indians and ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese. Magnetic therapy apparently gained its first publicity through Paracelsus, a 14th century physician and alchemist who reasoned that since magnets have the power to attract iron, perhaps they also can attract diseases and leach them from the body.

Paracelsus wandered throughout Europe and the Middle East studying with alchemists. He valued the common sense of common people more than the dry teachings of scientists and stressed nature's healing power. Such broad thinking irritated the authorities, and eventually Paracelsus was forced to flee.

The development in 18th century Europe of carbon-steel permanent magnets, more powerful than lodestones, renewed curiosity in the healing powers of magnets. Maximillian Hell, a professor of astronomy at the University of Vienna, was one of those interested. He claimed several cures using steel magnets.

A friend of Hell's, Franz Anton Mesmer, borrowed Hell's magnets to treat a woman suffering from mental illness. He claimed success and began promoting his theory of "animal magnetism." The theory was sufficiently put down after a special commission established by King Louis XVI concluded that all the observed effects of the healing through the use of magnets or items that had been "magnetized" could be attributed to the power of suggestion.

Mesmer then faded from public view, but the idea of healing with magnets continued. It evolved into the study of hypnosis and various forms of hypnotherapy.

An American who became interested in magnetic healing, Daniel David Palmer, opened Palmer's School of Magnetic Cure in Iowa in the 1890s. His ideas developed into the system of hands-on therapy known today as chiropractic.

Others focused on using hand gestures to heal people without actually touching them. This type of therapy was reborn as therapeutic touch.

While these byproducts of magnetic therapy ceased to use actual magnets, the development of electrical technology in the 19th century created interest in electric and magnetic fields. Therapeutic magnets were promoted as a way to relieve pain, enhance sleep and cure a variety of disease.

Many believe in those basic principles and still practice magnetic therapy. And there still is a market for magnetic therapy projects.

A 1997 study at Baylor College of Medicine concluded permanent magnets reduce pain in post-polio patients. The results of that study were heralded in newspapers throughout the country, most notably in a Jan. 6, 1999, story in The New York Times.

Around the same time, national magazines reported on the growing use of magnets by champion senior golfers and other professional athletes to relieve pain, resulting in an explosion of magnetic jewelry and other magnetic items for therapeutic use.

Sources: "Magnetic Therapy: Plausible Attraction?" by James D. Livingston, published in the July /August 1998 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer; Web site: www.biomagnetictherapy.net /whyit works.html

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