Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William F. Channing to Walt Whitman, 19 March 1873

Date: March 19, 1873

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01258

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Kenneth M. Price, Ashley Lawson, and Beverley Rilett

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Providence, R. I.
March 19, 1873

Walt Whitman
Dear friend,

By my sister Nell's request I send you today by mail the best copy I could find of my Medical Electricity. The book is now out of print. When published in 1849 it was the most extended treatise in the English language, & it was original in almost all of its generalizations, in many of its observations & in quite a number of instruments now used all over the world, as well as in the collection & analysis of reported cases. It has been replaced by a score of much more pretentious books, published by medical electricilians in this country who have made my work their staple & appropriated it without credit, while of course adding new material! A few European works have appeared containing men & valuable matter, & the science has grown so as to give the more recent publications a wider field & more assured ground. But I feel obliged to say, (& I think I do it impartially) that the later authors in this country have been all or almost all deficient either in thorough electrical or thorough physiological training, & their books are apt to contain [crotchets?] or are sometimes obviously wrtten to advertise a practitioner or to magnify & [mystify?] his peculiar methods. I have never listed a public complaint of the appropriation of my modest book, & have always formed sufficient recompense in the certainty that I have been of use in extending this application of electricity & perhaps in being the first to present an outline of electro-medical science.

Excuse this long personal history of the book. I wrote to my sister my haunting fear that you might use electricity prematurely & incautiously & I rejoiced to hear that your physician agreed with me. In a word electricity must not be used while there is existing lesion of the brain or nerve-centres. On the other hand as irritation or inflammation of the nerve centres has been subdued by medical treatment, or overcome by rest & the recuperative forces of nature, electricity properly applied will almost always restore the paralysed members & functions. The exceptions are only where structural change of nerve centres or nerves has taken place to an extent beyond repair. But premature use of electricity, while there is existing lesion of the brain may induce congestion, apoplexy or convulsions. The proper way is to make the first experiment cautiously. It thus becomes possible to employ it as soon as it is indicated.

The direct current of the galvanic battery (12 to 50 pairs), applied intermittently, is much more effective in the last resort than the electromagnetic, & often less disturbing.

We heard of your sickness with great sorrow. I for one have felt my indebtedness to you for great thoughts & words more than ever before. I found in a book store a few days since a copy of your first (folio) edition, & I purchased it with a feeling of good omen.

If I should say a word more to you as physician it would be that what you most need is entire rest of your habitually overworked brain. Undoubtedly travel & change of scene for a year would help you most after recovery has fairly commenced. But you ought not to go to England where excitement would await you. A course of Continental French, German, Swiss travel & a mediterranean (Sicilian or Grecian) climate for your next winter would be my ideal.

Jeannie sends you her kindest regards & sympathy. She has intended to write you.

Yours truly,
Wm. F. Channing


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