Collections Curiosities: Thompson Plaster X-Ray Company and the Shocking History of Electrotherapy
The process of inventorying the Loudoun Museum’s extensive collection of objects, documents, and photographs often results in some interesting discoveries that pique the interest of myself and the volunteers that work with me. These unusual objects and ephemera inspire a deep dive of research to figure out what these items are, how they were used, by whom, and how we can use these objects to tell the history of Loudoun County.
Most recently, my encounter with these two objects left me with many questions. Described as “medical diagnostic equipment,” and apparently manufactured or sold in Leesburg by a local company, I sought out to learn the story behind these objects and the men who sold them.
The obvious starting point for research was the maker’s marks, or manufacturers labels, on these machines. The “Thompson Plaster X-Ray Company” began around 1914 as “Physicians Specialty Company,” possibly as distributors of apparatus originally made by the Chicago company H. G. Fischer.
The namesakes and founders of this company were president and manager Hugh Ashby Thompson (1861-1941) and vice-president William Emory Plaster (1887-1936). H. A. Thompson had an active life in Leesburg as a cashier at the People’s National Bank, President of the Chamber of Commerce, and even a term as Mayor of Leesburg from 1896-1897. William Emory Plaster married Thompson’s daughter Helen in 1914, around the time he started the company with his father-in-law, although he was drafted and served in the First World War in 1917 and spent some time away from the business. Another prominent Leesburg resident and son-in-law of Thompson was company treasurer Horace C. Littlejohn. Working so closely with family did not seem to effect the success of the business, which apparently by 1924 maintained service stations for its products all over the United States and in multiple foreign countries including Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil.
The Thompson Plaster X-Ray Company sold medical equipment including, as the name suggests, X-ray apparatus and supplies which was an emerging technology at the turn of the 20th century. The company’s specialty, however, was the “Thompson Plaster Electrical Cabinet” which utilized another emerging and potentially questionable technology at the time- electrotherapy.
The cabinet was demonstrated in exhibition halls of medical conventions such as the 1914 Southern Medical Association Meeting in Richmond. It was at these meetings that businessmen like Thompson and Plaster could pitch their devices for physicians to purchase for their practices. Harnessing and utilizing electricity was still relatively new and its use in many applications, including medical, became somewhat of a fad. Use of electricity as a method of pain relief dates back to ancient discoveries of electrical fishes by the Greeks and Romans, but was harnessed by man-made machines in the 18th and 19th centuries. While electrical currents are still used in some medical treatments today, its use during the 19th and 20th centuries was indiscriminate and unrefined.
Electrical Cabinets and other electro-therapeutic apparatus were advertised and sold through catalogs and organizations that appeared legitimate and medical but were often written, founded, and funded by electrotherapists. Thompson himself advertised in and co-authored “Electro-Therapy in the Abstract for the Busy Practitioner,” a nearly 100 page publication that details the different cabinet models, their virtually endless medical applications, and multiple testimonials from happy customers. The cabinets did not require a medical license to purchase or operate, though many of the testimonials are from self-described physicians- some of whom refer to themselves as “electricians.”
At this point in history, the line between alternative and legitimate medicine is less defined, as is the distinction between professional and entrepreneurial. It is difficult to know if distributors such as Thompson and Plaster saw these devices as honest, effective medical treatment or if they were more focused on the profitability of their business. Electrotherapy’s lack of regulation, while potentially problematic, created opportunities for women to practice medicine. Drs. Jenny K. Trout and E. Amelia Tefft, for example, created the Toronto Electro-Therapeutic Institution in 1875 to treat women with these devices.
While electro-therapy was used to treat an extremely wide variety of ailments including (but not limited to) headaches, asthma, leukemia, deafness, and impotence, many of its applications were for “feminine complaints” such as uterine problems, mammary disorders, menstrual issues, and of course, hysteria. The personal, sometimes invasive nature of these procedures lead to increasing number of female electro-therapists to maintain modest social norms.
The variety of treatment types and methods is beyond the scope of this research and my personal knowledge of anatomy and mechanics. However reading these advertising catalogs paints a gruesome picture of the experimental nature of some of these treatments and how painful they might have been. For example a description of diathermy, one method of electrotherapy, suggests “heating the deeper tissues as hot as the patient can bear.” For the brave and morbidly curious, the catalog is cited in my sources below.
The historic testimonials and the continued use of some forms of electrotherapy today suggest that there were some situations in which this was an appropriate and effective therapy. The fad of widespread use ended sometime in the 1920’s-30’s possibly due to the further development and availability of analgesic (pain relieving) drugs and the onset of the Great Depression. Around this same time, Thompson and Plaster X-Ray Company goes out of business. Thompson and Plaster go into insurance sales and real estate, respectively.
Today the building that once housed the Thompson Plaster X-Ray Company still stands as Black Shutter Antiques- where perhaps some of their apparatus might be sold to collectors of curiosities today.
“A Guide to the Thompson-Plaster X-Ray Company Account Book, 1917-1918 Thompson-Plaster X-Ray Company Account Book BV 006.” Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=tbl/viletbl00045.xml. Cruikshank, Omar T., and H. A. Thompson. Electro-Therapy in the Abstract for the Busy Practitioner. Dando Company, 1918. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=dwk55QnGRpQC&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA135 Heidland, August, Gholamreza Fazeli, André Klassen, Katarina Sebekova, Hans Hennemann, Udo Bahner, and Biagio Di Iorio. “Neuromuscular Electrostimulation Techniques: Historical Aspects and Current Possibilities in Treatment of Pain and Muscle Waisting.” Clinical Nephrology 79 Suppl 1 (January 2013): S12-23. History of Virginia. American historical Society, 1924. “LD-168_LeesburgHD_Survey_Nicholas_Minor_section_1998_HAAR_report.Pdf.” Accessed May 7, 2020. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/pdf_files/SpecialCollections/LD-168_LeesburgHD_Survey_Nicholas_Minor_section_1998_HAAR_report.pdf. Loudoun County: 250 Years of Towns and Villages. Arcadia Publishing, 1999. McDonald, Annie Laurie. Leesburg. Arcadia Publishing, 2011. “Thompson-Plaster X-Ray Company - Social Networks and Archival Context.” Accessed May 1, 2020. https://snaccooperative.org/ark:/99166/w6md3r0s. “View of A Shocking Business: The Technology and Practice of Electrotherapeutics in Canada, 1840s to 1940s | Material Culture Review.” Accessed May 7, 2020. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/mcr/article/view/17789/22157.