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The 1800s Medical Device That Promised Cures by Repeatedly Stabbing Patients

The Life Awakener contraption gave patients “healing” pustules.

Be careful unscrewing this ebony staff. There are 30 sharp needles hidden inside.
Be careful unscrewing this ebony staff. There are 30 sharp needles hidden inside. Archives and Special Collections, Library and Center for Knowledge Management, University of California, San Francisco

In 1847, German inventor Carl Baunscheidt was sitting in his room in pain, his hand aching from arthritis. He was swatting at hungry mosquitos until he finally gave up and allowed one to bite his hand. As the wound swelled, he was surprised when felt a bit of relief.

“How, in a quite simple and natural manner, the morbid matter that may be found in the body, may be extracted from the suffering parts, and removed without the loss of blood,” Baunscheidt wrote about the experience in the 1865 edition of his book Baunscheidtism, or a new method of cure.

In other words, Baunscheidt was convinced that the bite, or “artificial pore,” allowed the pain and poisons in the body to leak out of the skin.  

In the introduction of the book, <em>Baunscheidtism, or a new method of cure</em>, there is a picture of a mosquito hovering over a hand—the source of Baunscheidt's inspiration for the Resuscitator.
In the introduction of the book, Baunscheidtism, or a new method of cure, there is a picture of a mosquito hovering over a hand—the source of Baunscheidt’s inspiration for the Resuscitator. Internet Archive/Public Domain

This episode with the mosquito inspired Baunscheidt to create the Lebenswecker, or Resuscitator—a sleek ebony-wood staff with a spring that launches 30 thin, sharp needles. From the mid-19th century to well into the 20th century, people tried to cure everything from sleeplessness to yellow fever to epilepsy by puncturing different areas of the body with the homeopathic contraption. An oil, called Oleum Baunscheidt, was slathered over the small welts, creating blisters and pustules like fake insect bites.

“If you created these blisters and they oozed, then that oozing would be sickness coming out of your body,” says Kelsi Evans, an archivist at the University of California, San Francisco Library who came across a Resuscitator kit in the over 1,000-piece collection.

Carl Baunscheidt, a prolific medical device inventor.
Carl Baunscheidt, a prolific medical device inventor. Internet Archive/Public Domain

Baunscheidt had no professional medical training, yet he invented an assortment of medical devices. He built a smallpox vaccinator, a breast pump, and a bloodletting device called the Artificial Leech (a thin device that used the same mechanics of the Resuscitator with only one needle). But Baunscheidt’s fame and fortune came after he released the Resuscitator in 1848.

To support the use of his device, he developed an alternative medical practice he called Baunscheidtism, a form of homeopathy heavily influenced by the ancient Greek theory that the body is controlled by the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Many people and practitioners during Baunscheidt’s time believed that an imbalance of the four humors caused illness—an idea that allowed the technique of bloodletting to persist for thousands of years.

However, bloodletting was beginning to decline in popularity, and patients were not satisfied with the results of internal medicines and remedies, Baunscheidt wrote in his book. He reasoned that removing the “disease-producing substances” through stab wounds was a more direct, simple, and controlled treatment option.

Baunscheidt based his treatment on this balance and imbalance of secretions and liquids in the body, explains Evans. “The idea is basically using the pain from the device to distract and send your body’s illness to a location, or a concentrated space.”

A sketch of the ebony shell and the interior coil and needle apparatus in <em>Baunscheidtism, or a new method of cure</em>.
A sketch of the ebony shell and the interior coil and needle apparatus in Baunscheidtism, or a new method of cure. Internet Archive/Public Domain

Baunscheidt’s original Lebenswecker, which literally means “life awakener,” is a simple device. On one end of the staff, there is a loose, moveable piece connected to a tightly coiled metal spring. This controls the needles sheathed inside the barrel-shaped container. An operator pulls back the small handle about two inches to retract the needles and then releases to snap them forward and pierce the skin.

The Resuscitator was often sold in an $8.00 kit with Baunscheidt’s booklet and the bottle of the blister-causing oil. The Oleum Baunscheidt kept the wound open longer, allowing more rapid removal of the “evil” in the body, Baunscheidt explained. Immediately after being punctured by the Resuscitator, the oil was rubbed on with “a chicken feather or small pencil.” Within four to six minutes, the skin would alight with “an eruption resembling millet seeds,” patients feeling a “curious crawling sensation,” he wrote.   

For a more concentrated experience, users would dip the needles in the oil prior to application to receive an experience “kind of like an injection,” says Evans.

Sometimes, patients would dip the sharp needles into the oil.
Sometimes, patients would dip the sharp needles into the oil. Archives and Special Collections, Library and Center for Knowledge Management, University of California, San Francisco

Baunscheidt declared that all ailments could be treated with the Resuscitator. For a toothache, one should pierce the nape of the neck, between shoulder blades, behind the ear, and on the side of the head where the toothache is found. Sleeplessness and baldness calls for punctures down the spinal column, while asthma requires application on the chest and ribs. Those with measles, influenza, or relapsed itch apply the Resuscitator over the entire posterior of the body and the abdomen.

While Baunscheidt provides suggestions for many diseases, testimonies reveal that users would experimentally stab themselves on all areas of the body until they felt a result. “People who were writing to him were trying it for all kinds of things,” Evans says. “There is a woman in here writing about her cramps, so she applied [the punctures] around her abdomen where the pain is.”

One patient, C.A. Munk from Fostoria, Ohio, wrote: “I have applied the Resuscitator to my little daughter, who has been almost entirely deprived of hearing; and with the happiest results. She now hears very well again. I have also used it three times already, in cases of throat-diseases, with excellent effect. In cases of headache it produced good results.”

In this illustration of Adonis and Aphrodite featured in Baunscheidt’s book, he points out fleshy areas that are the most “generally appropriate to operate upon with the Resuscitator.”
In this illustration of Adonis and Aphrodite featured in Baunscheidt’s book, he points out fleshy areas that are the most “generally appropriate to operate upon with the Resuscitator.” Internet Archive/Public Domain

By 1854, the Resuscitator was widely popular. It was a common item in Germany and the United States, and testimonies reveal that there were Resuscitator users in Canada, Scotland, Chile, and Italy.

Competitors and profiteers made imitations of both the device and the oil. Baunscheidt was extremely protective over the recipe of the Oleum Baunscheidt, and kept it a secret. While the original contents remain unknown, today the oil is described as toxic.

The contents of Baunscheit's original oil still remains a mystery.
The contents of Baunscheit’s original oil still remains a mystery. Internet Archive/Public Domain

Around the mid-1900s, the Resuscitator craze began to dwindle. German editions of Baunscheidt’s booklet were published until the 1940s, but foreign copies tapered off drastically. Today, Baunscheidt’s practice and the Resuscitator are widely discredited. Physiologically, there is nothing that ties stabbing the skin and forming a blister with healing any kind of illness, explains Evans.  

Yet Baunscheidt’s Resuscitator is a unique device that differs from the many bloodletting and homeopathic contraptions invented during the 1800s. “The Lebenswecker is an interesting tool because it looks like a bloodletting tool, but it’s in fact not really tied with the blood,” Evans says. “It’s tied more with this morbid matter, the idea that the blisters are going to release the sickness rather than blood.”

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