Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Perkins, Elisha

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PERKINS, Elisha, physician, b. in Norwich, Conn., 16 Jan., 1741; d. in New York city, 6 Sept., 1799. He was educated by his father, Dr. Joseph Perkins, in Plainfield, Conn., and began the practice of medicine there with great success. About 1796 he invented his metallic tractors, which consisted of two instruments, one resembling brass and the other steel, but which he said were of a peculiar composition of metals, three inches long, and pointed at the ends. They were chiefly used in local inflammations, pains in the face and head, in rheumatism, and similar diseases. The points of these instruments were applied to the part, and then drawn over it for about twenty minutes in a downward direction. This method of curing diseases was recommended by the faculty of three institutions of good standing in the United States, and in Copenhagen twelve physicians and surgeons, most of them instructors in the Royal Frederick hospital, began a course of experiments, and gave their opinion in favor of the new theory, which they called “Perkinsism,” publishing the results of their investigations in an octavo volume. In London, where the tractors were introduced by Dr. Perkins's son, a Perkinsian institution for the benefit of the poor was established under the presidency of Lord Rivers. The published cases of cures numbered 5,000, and were certified to by eight professors, forty physicians, and thirty clergymen. The list of persons who claimed to have been cured by this remedy was enormous. In 1803, after the death of Perkins, the English physicians began to doubt its efficacy, but the theory had numerous defenders, and Thomas G. Fessenden published a “Terrible Tractoration” in favor of Perkins and as a satire on other physicians. A short time before his death Perkins invented an antiseptic medicine, and administered it with great success in low states of dysentery and sore throat. Being anxious to test its efficacy against yellow fever, he went to New York in 1799, during an epidemic of that disease, and, after four weeks of continuous toil among the sick, died of the fever. He possessed great native endowments, public spirit, and generosity, but he cannot be cleared of the charge of imposture in regard to his tractors, which he pretended were of a peculiar combination of metals, but in reality were of brass and iron. — His son, Benjamin Douglas, was a bookseller, and resided for some years in England, disposing of the metallic tractors. He published “The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body” (London, 1798).