benjamin franklin

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timeline: 1755
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An illustration of the no-hands stroke from The Art of Swimming
Benjamin Franklin took a great interest in health-related topics. In his day, many beliefs about health and disease were based on superstition. Franklin applied Enlightenment reasoning to his study of various afflictions and came up with some astonishingly accurate hypotheses.

Here are some of Franklin's theories and accomplishments in the fields of health, physical fitness, and medicine.

Common cold: In the 18th century, most people believed that wet clothing and dampness in the air caused the common cold. However, Franklin observed that sailors, who were constantly wearing wet clothing, remained healthy. After considering the matter on and off for several years, he eventually concluded: "People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small close rooms, coaches, &c. and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other's transpiration." Before the knowledge of viruses and germs, Franklin had determined that the common cold was passed between people through the air.

Lead poisoning: Franklin learned first-hand from the printing business that working with warm lead type caused his hands to become exceptionally stiff and sore. He discovered that some typesetters who warmed their type sometimes lost the complete use of their hands. Franklin decided to work with cold type from that point on. Years later, he visited a hospital in France that treated patients suffering from what was then called the "dry gripes" or "dry belly ache." In analyzing the list of patients, Franklin deduced that all of them were in professions where they were exposed to large quantities of lead. He corresponded with others interested in this health issue, exchanging observations and insights about the illness. Franklin concluded: "I have long been of the opinion that that distemper [dry gripes] proceeds always from a metallic cause only, observing that it affects among tradesmen those that use lead, however different their trades, as glazers, type-founders, plumbers, potters, white lead-makers and painters." Franklin's observations were among the earliest to link health problems with exposure to lead.

Pennsylvania Hospital: A friend of Franklin, Dr. Thomas Bond, came up with the idea of establishing a public hospital. Bond was unable to raise the money, so he turned to Franklin, who mounted a public relations and information campaign in support of a hospital. The colonial government finally agreed and the hospital was founded in 1751. The hospital's mission was to serve the mentally ill, along with providing medical care to poor citizens who could not afford a private physician. The Pennsylvania Hospital is considered to be the first public hospital in the United States. While raising money for the hospital, Franklin came up with a new idea for combining public (government) money with private donations, which created the first matching grant.

Electricity and paralysis: Franklin experimented with giving electrical shocks to individuals who had paralysis in their limbs due to a stroke or other cause. He wired the patients to Leyden jars and sent electrical shocks to the paralyzed limbs. Franklin observed improvement in many of the patients, but reported that most relapsed after several days. Although he was initially excited about the possibilities, he wrote that he "never knew any advantage from electricity in palsies that was permanent." Modern medical doctors stimulate immobile muscles with electrical impulses to help prevent atrophy.

Exercise: As an avid swimmer in his youth, Franklin learned the joys of exercise. He was one of the earliest supporters of regular exercise as a way of maintaining one's health. He especially believed in outdoor exercise with lots of fresh air. In a letter to his son William, Franklin outlined a complete program of vigorous exercise, which Franklin contended would help prevent disease. Franklin rightly believed that the more strenuous the exercise, the higher the degree of body warmth. He commented that when he exercised vigorously with dumbbells that both his heart rate and temperature rose. Today we know that regular cardiovascular exercise can prevent a variety of ailments.

Swimming: Franklin grew up near the ocean in Boston and began swimming at a young age. On his first trip to London in 1724, he often swam in the Thames River and entertained observers with the "ornamental" maneuvers he performed in the water. While in London, Franklin considered taking a job as a full-time swimming instructor. For his early encouragement of the sport of swimming, Franklin was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Flexible catheter: Franklin improved on conventional catheters, which were hard tubes that were inserted into the bladder through the urethra to drain urine from the body. The original devices were very uncomfortable and often painful to the patient. Franklin devised a catheter with a flexible tube, resulting in less discomfort for the patient.

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