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Nile Catfish

The Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks knew about the shocking powers of the Nile catfish and the electric ray or “torpedo” (Figure 1). There is no concrete evidence, however, to show that they used the discharges from these fish as therapy. In contrast, Scribonius Largus, who lived just before Galen, placed a large electric ray across the brow of a patient suffering from severe headaches. He allowed the ray to discharge its electricity “until the patient’s senses were anesthetized.” Successful in reducing headache pain, he also anesthetized patients who complained of other types of pain.

Figure 1 An ancient Greek ceramic plate showing three fish.
The odd-looking fish on the right is the electric ray, Torpedo ocellata.

Galen followed Scribonius Largus when it came to using the discharges of the ray, recommending it for headache and other pains. He also promoted the electric ray as a good remedy for epilepsy, the best-documented and most feared of all brain diseases in ancient times [1].


1              Finger, S.: ‘Minds behind the brain: A history of the pioneers and their discoveries’ (Oxford University Press, 2004. 2004)

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