Are you suffering from headaches? Stiff joints? Paralysis? Deafness?

These days such an extensive list of ailments would require a complex variety of treatments, ranging from pills to physical therapy or even surgery. Yet if you were a Victorian patient, all of these complaints could fall under the remit of Doctor Gerald Macaura’s Blood Circulator! At first glance this odd contraption may look like a torture device (or, as one patron described it, a “man from outer space”) but it is actually a Victorian massage machine. Patented in 1869 and popular into the early 20th century, it became a verifiable health craze, taking the country by storm.

Dr. Macaura’s blood circulator and box. Science Museum Group Collection.

Comprised of a simple gear and cam mechanism, and enclosed in a chrome-plated case, the contraption was a hand-cranked vibrotherapy device which, according to its creator, could deliver up to 6,000 vibrations per minute. With it placed against the afflicted body part, Macaura claimed that the vibrations could improve circulation, “arousing the internal organs into activity”, and through this, cure all manner of diseases. Almost comically today, he laid claim to it being able to cure everything from infantile paralysis, deafness, cancer and TB to a whole host of minor ailments such as rheumatism, constipation, anxiety, asthma, “women’s issues” and haemorrhoids. Marketed as the cutting edge of science, the Blood Circulator seemed to herald the end of disease itself.

Through a 21st-century lens it seems obvious to us that this device could not perform all of its wonderful claims.  If this was the case we would all be equipped with our trusty Blood Circulators, rather than it being confined to the back catalogues of history! At the time, however, this seemed like a medical marvel and stories abounded in newspapers and journals of its miraculous effects. As the Cheltenham Chronicle reported in 1911, a Mrs Bellamy of St Pauls was treated at a public demonstration at the local town hall. She had been bound to her bath chair for two years and her case seemed unwinnable. But after receiving the short, non-invasive treatment, she miraculously stood up, much to the amazement of the crowd. In fact, she returned home that night running down the street and pushing her friend in the very chair she had seemingly been infinitely bound to. As the paper reported, “Mrs Bellamy’s case continues to improve and in a most marvellous manner”. This was not an isolated case and similar accounts can be traced all the way from Dundee to Portsmouth; reports ranging from the deaf hearing to the asthma-ridden breathing freely. This may sound too good to be true, but it is easy to see how reading so many of these accounts would build up to create a convincing picture. It has been estimated that tens of thousands of units were sold in Britain alone, and the machines were flying off the shelf so quickly that Macaura’s factory had to run day and night just to supply demand.

Photograph of William T. Stead, signed, 1907. Library of Congress.

Another notable incident that added to its popularity was the public challenge of W.T. Stead. Stead was a popular investigative journalist and, sceptical of Macaura’s claims, challenged him to a public display. Held at Clavier Hall in London, Stead presented an array of patients who had seemingly incurable ills and all of whom had been certified by trusted medical authorities as hopeless cases. Much to Stead’s embarrassment, however, Macaura upstaged him. He cured all of his test subjects in front of an audience of thousands and in the weeks following none returned to their previous ill-health. Stead had to publish an article admitting that the machine was not a scam and declared it “miraculous”.

However, not all critics were so easily swayed and this is where Macaura’s success came unstuck. In one notable incident, his 1910 show at the Royal Albert Hall was raided by 200 medical students, heckling and jeering the ‘doctor’ whilst unleashing stink bombs. This was only the start of his decline. Macaura was eventually exposed as a fraud and in 1914 was sentenced to three years in a French jail. He was revealed not even to be a real doctor and ‘Macaura’ was simply an alias. He continued to sell vast numbers of the machines – allegedly making $75,000 even whilst incarcerated – but ultimately his five minutes of fame was up. Despite continuing to patent new massage machines well into the 1940s, he faded into obscurity.

This tale is interesting enough but there is even more to this machine than meets the eye. Much as it did in its heyday, the contraption is still causing controversy and debate today. In her 1999 book, historian Rachel Maines made the controversial claim that machines like Macaura’s were used to treat “hysteria”. Hysteria – possibly the “women’s issues” Macaura was referring to in his instruction manual – was a commonly diagnosed illness in the Victorian period. It was a catch-all diagnosis given to women suffering from any number of symptoms: insomnia, depression, PTSD, infertility and the menopause, to name just a few. Any woman who behaved differently from what society expected was at risk of being branded “hysterical” and thus sick. Linking to this contraption, Maines alleged that doctors in the Victorian and Edwardian eras used vibrating machines to bring women to a “hysterical paroxysm” – an orgasm. This, she proposed, was believed could cure them of all their “hysterical” ailments. Upon publication, this peculiar theory immediately captured the popular imagination and has since spawned multiple books, countless newspaper and magazine articles and even a 2011 film aptly titled ‘Hysteria’.

Yet if this sounds unbelievable to you, then you have a good historical eye. It sounds untrue because it is and this theory has recently been debunked by countless historians. None of Maines’ evidence actually gives explicit mention of this use and more recent studies have shown Victorians had a much better understanding of sexuality than this gives them credit for. It’s impossible to argue with complete certainty that this never took place, but it is possible to maintain that this particular treatment for “hysteria” fell outside normal medical practice. It is simply a bizarre urban legend.

In conclusion, behind this unassuming machine lays a history of supposed miracles, investigative journalism, quack science and ultimately even passionate historical controversy. Not bad for something that could easily be mistaken for a woodworking tool!  

References

“Dr Macaura’s Blood Circulator and Other Letters.” 1979. Country Life (Archive : 1901 – 2005), Sep 20, 854.

“Macaura Vindicated.” Penny Illustrated Paper, February 4, 1911, 155. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 15, 2021). 

“Interesting Developments Of The Macaura Treatment.” Penny Illustrated Paper, February 11, 1911, 181+. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 15, 2021). 

“Can Dr. Macaura Cure Rheumatism?” Penny Illustrated Paper, March 18, 1911, 351. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 16, 2021).

“A Few Remarkable Cases Treated by the Pulsocon.” Cheltenham Chronicle, October 21, 1911, 8. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 16, 2021).
https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000518/19111021/049/0008

“Severe Sentence on ‘Dr.’ Macaura.” Hull Daily Mail, May 15, 1914, 3. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 15, 2021). https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000324/19140515/017/0003.

“The Marvellous ‘Pulsocon’ Cure.” Dundee Evening Telegraph, September 8, 1913, 3. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 16, 2021). https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000563/19130908/075/0003.

“Advertisement and Notices.” Derby Daily Telegraph, September 1, 1908, 1+. British Library Newspapers (accessed March 15, 2021). https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000327/19080901/067/0004.

“Good vibrations: The Macaura Blood Circulator”. The Newsletter of the Social History Curators Group. 27, pp. 9-10. http://www.shcg.org.uk/domains/shcg.org.uk/local/media/downloads/SHCG27.pdf.

Maines, Rachel. 1999. The technology of orgasm [electronic resource] : “hysteria,” the vibrator, and women’s sexual satisfaction. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Riddell, Fern., 2014. The Victorian guide to sex. Barnsley: Pen and Sword History

Lieberman, Hallie and Eric Schatzberg. 2018. “A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm”. Journal of Positive Sexuality. 4(2), pp. 24-47

 

Photograph of Dr. Macaura’s blood circulator and box from https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co140169/dr-macauras-blood-circulator-massager

Photograph of William T. Stead, signed, 1907, Digital photograph, Library of Congress, accessed 16 March 2021. https://picryl.com/media/photograph-of-william-t-stead-signed.

About the author

Hannah Stovin is an undergraduate historian at Oxford University. Her interests lie in 19th- and 20th-century women’s British history and looking especially at activism and political change. She is also interested in the history of sexuality, gender and bodies and especially how medical understanding intersects with this.

She can be found on Instagram (mainly posting artsy pictures of her cooking) at @hannahstovin.

Doctor Gerald Macaura’s Blood Circulator
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