By James F. Stark, University of Leeds
Let’s start with spas.
I remember vividly the first time I visited a spa. As I prepared to start an afternoon of relaxation a friendly member of the reception staff promised me that I would leave ‘completely rejuvenated’. I decided that this was not the moment to be sceptical and nodded enthusiastically.
The truth is that I immediately began to think about what ‘rejuvenation’ means and, perhaps more importantly, what it has meant. Unpacking the detailed, multi-faceted and nuanced meanings of commonplace words and ideas is a favourite pastime of historians, and this was no different. For me, ‘rejuvenation’ had recently become bound up with a quirky medical device dating from the 1920s: the Overbeck Rejuvenator.
This was the brainchild of Otto Overbeck (1860-1937), an enterprising industrial chemist who patented a number of innovations related to brewing, including apparatus for cleaning grain and malt, a method of dealcoholizing beer, and a precursor to Marmite which he termed ‘a nutritious extract’. Although he held his job with Hewitt Brothers’ Brewery in Grimsby – a small fishing town on the east coast of England – for a number of years, his real interest for historians stems from a later passage of his life when he began to suffer from ill-health. After his doctors had apparently suggested that he should put his affairs in order, Overbeck began to experiment with electricity as a form of alternative therapy.
He started simply by connecting low-power batteries to his body with brass wires to try and alleviate a chronic kidney complaint. So confident was Overbeck in the healing power of electricity that he set about transforming this rudimentary assemble into something altogether more sophisticated. By the early 1920s the basic design of the Rejuvenator was completed, and on 17 May 1924 Overbeck deposited a patent application at the British Patent Office for a small part of the device: the electric body combs.
Overbeck enlisted the prestigious Ediswan Company to manufacture the original Rejuvenator, which consisted of a large but low-current battery and three pairs of differently shaped electrodes. The user simply plugged the appropriate electrodes into the battery and then applied them to the affected part of the body for a set length of time (determined, of course, by the complex accompanying instructions from Overbeck himself). The promotional literature boasted that the Rejuvenator could cure all illnesses and diseases apart from those caused by germs, and deformities. Perhaps best of all, Overbeck proclaimed, there was no need for any user to seek professional medical advice, avoiding potentially costly or embarrassing encounters.
The Rejuvenator was sold throughout the world; Overbeck marketed it through newspapers and by carrying out high-profile demonstrations, such as one which he personally supervised at the Savoy Hotel in 1930. He also published two books outlining a scientific theory of electricity and health. The first of these, A New Electronic Theory of Life, was published in 1925 and went through a number of editions, even though it was effectively a less-then-subtle advert for his business rather than a scientific treatise. He took out further patents in different countries, and proudly displayed these on the inside of the lid which housed the Rejuvenator. It is difficult to work out exactly how many were sold (sadly very few company records survive), but Overbeck was able to buy a palatial Edwardian residence, now managed by the National Trust, on the south coast of England in 1928.
It was not all plain sailing for the enterprising Overbeck, however. He was refused permission to advertise in the British Medical Journal, and the British Medical Association even commissioned an electrical engineer to examine the Rejuvenator to assess whether it posed a risk to users. The medical profession therefore reacted with a mixture of scepticism, anxiety and derision towards a man they regarded as an imposter, and a device which they felt was little more than a money-making scam. The Australian government even went so far as to ban the import of the Rejuvenator in 1934.
Following the death of Otto Overbeck in 1937 the business was taken over by two of his associates, one of whom was his brother-in-law. However, the outbreak of the Second World War meant that materials and demand became in short supply and the Overbeck Rejuvenator Company was voluntarily wound up in 1940.
The Rejuvenator was a popular device and it touches on a number of key themes in the history of science, technology and medicine. It shows how different levels of tension existed between ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’. These tensions continue today, and there remains an ambiguous relationship between ‘mainstream’ and ‘complementary’ medicines and their respective practitioners. The device also highlights the role of patenting, ownership and marketing in history; Overbeck used his own name, appealed to scientific authority, and persuaded potential customers that their health would improve because the Rejuvenator was heavily patented. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the Rejuvenator changed the very meaning of the word ‘rejuvenation’. Before the Rejuvenator, this term was linked strongly with male hormone treatments designed to recapture and enhance virility. Afterwards, rejuvenation could also be achieved by a mild, often overlooked form of electrotherapy which was far less gender-specific and which could be carried out in the home without the presence of a highly trained medical operative. The common use of similar treatments now – such as TENS – means that the Overbeck Rejuvenator is of more relevance to our present views on medicine and medical practice than we might first think.
James F. Stark is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. This blog post is in part based on the paper, “Patents, testimonials and appeals to authority: the marketing of Overbeck’s ‘Rejuvenator’ around 1924-1937,” which he is due to give at iCHSTM as part of symposium S034, “From patronage to biotech: new perspectives on medicine and commerce” on Thursday 25th July 2013. Follow James on Twitter @KingTekkers
Please leave any comments or questions for James below.