Wilhelm Erb's electrotherapeutics and scientific medicine in 19th century Germany
Wilhelm Heinrich Erb (1840-1921) was the codiscoverer
of the knee jerk response and is often
referred to as the German counterpart of the French
neurologist Jean Charcot. Erb advocated the use of
electricity as a therapeutic agent, particularly in
nervous diseases. He belonged to the first generation
of German physicians educated in the spirit of
Virchow's programme of naturwissenschaftliche Medizin.
Among them were his mentor Nikolaus Friedreich, who
exerted the most decisive and singular influence upon
Erb, Albert Eulenburg, Eduard Hitzig and Hugo von
Ziemssen. They were all reputable scientifically minded
clinicians with a keen interest in advancing medical
therapy and among the most ardent supporters of
My thesis is not intended to be a comprehensive
biographical account of Erb's life but aims to explore
the broader reasons for his advocacy of electrotherapy
during the first phase (1860-1880) of the
implementation of natural scientific medicine in
Part I portrays the contemporary social,
political and institutional context at Heidelberg
University located in the German State of Baden where
Erb received his medical training and spent almost
exclusively his entire professional career.
Part II illustrates the intellectual roots and epistemological objectives of Rudolf Virchow's concept
of naturwissenschaftliche Medizin. I emphasize the
political and social significance of Virchow's medical
reform and its appeal to a generation of medical men
raised in the aftermath of the failed 1848 Revolution.
Erb is characterised as a "typical child of his time."
I also discuss the aesthetic appeal of electricity
which helped to promote its medical utilisation.
Part III provides a history of German
electrotherapy and investigates the intra-scientific
rationale for the momentary enthusiastic employment of
medical electricity. It concludes with an analysis of
Erb's chief electrotherapeutic publications and actual