In the late 1800s, according to a popular internet rumor, people suffering from headaches would travel to their local physician (or possibly blacksmith?), stick their heads into a metal pot, and be “treated” for their affliction by having the doctor hit the pot with a sledgehammer. This delicate treatment, according to the internet, was known as “vibration therapy.”
We have not been able to definitively determine what this picture shows. However, we can say for certain that it does not show “vibration therapy” or any other common historical medical treatment. In all likelihood, this is a composite image that was created with humorous intent.
This image has been circulating online for several years under a variety of different captions. Some posts, for instance, claim that it showed a cure for drunkenness. The most popular claim, however, is that this is an 1890s headache treatment called “vibration therapy.”
“Vibration therapy” truly did once exist, but it didn’t involve a pot and a sledgehammer. Vibration therapy was actually much more gentle. In 1883, around the time this “photograph” was supposedly taken, an English physician, Joseph Mortimer Granville, described vibration therapy in his book “Nerve-vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease.” Granville wrote that this treatment involved a brush that was “applied very lightly on the scalp, and moved from below upwards and from before backwards, a few times in an orderly manner.”
Granville developed an electo-mechanical vibrator to provide this treatment. Here’s an image of what his vibration therapy actually looked like:
When we reached out to Stephen Casper, the author of “The Neurologists: A History of a Medical Specialty in Modern Britain, C.1789–2000,” he told us that the sledgehammer image didn’t show “vibration therapy.” Casper said: “Vibration therapy was a true therapy, although again the detail doesn’t match.” Casper also noted that physicians in the 1890s were aware that loud sounds could result in pathological concussions, and thus knew that performing a “treatment” with a sledgehammer would likely cause more headaches than it would cure.
David Jones, professor of the culture of medicine at Harvard University, also told us that he was unaware of any medical treatments conducted in the manner depicted in the viral image. Jones said: “[I’ve] never heard of a medical treatment (legitimate or quack) that would involve the practices displayed.”
Both Jones and Casper suggested that this photograph was doctored. While we tend to agree, we have not been able to determine if this is a modern manipulation, or if it is an early example of a composite image that was possibly created for a humorous postcard or an advertisement.
Granville, Joseph Mortimer. Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease. Churchill, 1883.
Koehler, Peter J., and Christopher J. Boes. “A History of Non-Drug Treatment in Headache, Particularly Migraine.” Brain, vol. 133, no. 8, Aug. 2010, pp. 2489–500. Silverchair, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awq170.