Perry R. Branson M.D.


Vibrators and Other Forms of "Snake Oil"

Experts don't always know what they think they know.

Posted Feb 07, 2011

[This post is cross-posted at ShrinkWrapped, with additional links included.]

During the 19th century, Hysteria and Neurasthenia were debilitating disorders that affected a great many people, predominantly women, residing in civilized, modern societies. The scientific consensus was that such disorders were caused by disorders of the uterus. The treatment followed from the understanding of the genesis of the disorder:


In the Western world, until the seventeenth century, hysteria referred to a medical condition thought to be particular to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus (from the Greek ὑστέρα "hystera" = uterus). The origin of the term hysteria is commonly attributed to Hippocrates, even though the term isn't used in the writings that are collectively known as the Hippocratic corpus. The Hippocratic corpus refer to a variety of illness symptoms, such as suffocation and Heracles' disease, that were supposedly caused by the movement of a woman's uterus to various locations within her body as it became light and dry due to a lack of bodily fluids. One passage recommends pregnancy to cure such symptoms, ostensibly because intercourse will "moisten" the womb and facilitate blood circulation within the body.

By the mid to late 19th century, hysteria (or sometimes female hysteria) came to refer to what is today generally considered to be sexual dysfunction. Typical treatment was massage of the patient's genitalia by the physician and, later, by vibrators or water sprays to cause orgasm.

[Sigmund Freud, using the cutting edge science of electro-magnetism (based on a hydrology analogy) as his template, at first believed that such disorders were caused by "damned up libido." His great insight was to recognize that the reasons that a woman's libido might be damned up were not purely physiological but were based on psychological conflicts within the mind. Although this is now considered of historical interest only, it did mark the beginning of the sciences of the mind that emerged from the early days of Psychoanalysis.]

As with so many things, the people of the 19th century were as devoted to finding simple solutions to complex problems as we are today. Their "snake oil" was the vibrator.

The vibrator was invented in order to save the Medical Doctor from exhaustion from treating so many disordered women:

Vibrator (sex toy)

For centuries, doctors had been treating women for a wide variety of illnesses by performing what we would now recognize as masturbation. The "pelvic massage" was especially common in the treatment of female hysteria during the Victorian Era, as the point of such manipulation was to cause "hysterical paroxysm" (orgasm) in the patient. However, not only did they regard the "vulvular stimulation" required as having nothing to do with sex, but reportedly found it time-consuming and hard work.

One of the first vibrators was a steam-powered device called the "Manipulator", which was created by American physician George Taylor, M.D. This machine was a rather awkward device, but was still heralded as some relief for the doctors who found themselves suffering from fatigued wrists and hands. Circa 1880, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, then, in 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator available for retail sale, making the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.

The home versions soon became extremely popular, with advertisements in periodicals such as Needlecraft, Woman's Home Companion, Modern Priscilla, and the Sears, Roebuck catalog. These disappeared in the 1920s, apparently because their appearance in pornography made it no longer tenable for polite society to avoid the sexual connotations of the devices.

There has been tremendous progress in the last hundred years in science and technology. As a result we now imagine ourselves to be so sophisticated and scientific that we no longer believe nonsense on a regular basis. Because our world has become so much more complex, we are now being advised at every turn to defer to the experts, especially those who make a living in the Government-Academia-Journalism Complex, who can order our world, based on the latest scientific knowledge, for the good of all. From climate to diet, the experts remind us constantly of their knowledge (and their acolytes in the echo chamber parrot the "experts" in their typical appeals to authority) and eschew the kind of humility that all true experts typically intuitively understand is necessary when discussing the complex issues facing us; certainty is usually a sign of intellectual laziness.

Although I am not an expert on Nutrition, I have done a fair amount of reading on the topic and have become convinced that the dietary guidelines that our G-A-J Complex have promulgated over the last 30 years have been a disaster. Tom Maguire offers an illuminating discussion of some of the controversy that is lighting up the field of Nutrition:

The Most Important Book You Will Read This Year

Glenn has a copy of Gary Taubes "Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It" in the mail.

Let me say this - my understanding is that this is a restated and simplified version of his 2007 tome, "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health" (Chapter by chapter summary here). Read as a diet book it is interesting. However, it is fascinating as a story of how science can run off the rails. Mr. Taubes does not attempt to politicize his views, but our national obesity epidemic can certainly be told as a story of an Epic Big Government Fail. And for right-wingers who want more red meat, one can cast a bit of blame on hair-shirt environmentalists who noted (probably correctly) that an American diet high in beef and meat is not sustainable and achievable for the whole world. From the other side, lefties can cite Big Sugar, Big Corn (and its high fructose corn syrup) and Big Wheat as the enemy; why Big Meat and Big Dairy were outmuscled puzzles me.

Wherever you stand on the diet controversies, it is incontrovertible that we are suffering an epidemic of obesity. It may well simply be the result of low cost food allowing ad libidum caloric intake for everyone; maybe the source of the calories does not matter. On the other hand, if the current thinking gaining currency in Medical Nutrition is correct, refined sugars and carbohydrates are a significant contributor, perhaps a primary contributor, to the obesity epidemic.

It may be another 10-20 years before our understanding of the physiological responses to diverse diets is good enough that we can tailor particular diets to particular metabolisms, however, the fact that in their hubris the experts have created a catastrophe and that in our passivity we have allowed it, should be instructive.

If I may reference the counter-culture for some wisdom; the first is a bit of advice:

Don't follow leaders,

Watch your parking meters,

And you don't need a weatherman,

To know which way the wind blows.

The second is a bit of poignancy:

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

At least the "snake oil" salesmen of the 1900's had the virtue of bringing women to orgasm. I will defer to your imaginations as to what the 21st century "snake oil" salesmen are doing to their customers.