Month: August 2018

Shock Treatment

When people hear the term electrotherapy they often think of the treatment of writer Janet Frame or of archaic solutions for hysterical women or those deemed to be “unfortunates” who couldn’t be controlled. But electrotherapy has a much gentler side and has been used as a treatment to relieve pain since Ancient Rome.

In 63AD Scribonius Largus, court physician to Claudius Caesar, wrote that his pain was relieved when he accidentally stood on an electric fish at the sea shore. He went on to promote placing a black torpedo (electric ray) on the area where a patient was experiencing pain to induce numbness and relieve the pain. It became a standard treatment for headaches and migraines, and was also sometimes used for epilepsy and other neurological conditions.

1. Gray & Sons

 Joseph Gray & Son’s Patent Magneto Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases. Ref: 1955.61

More concentrated study into electricity-based therapies developed in the 17th and 18th centuries and various contraptions were created to assist with the delivery of the treatments, but the fish was still used. Benjamin Franklin even had two sessions of electric fish therapy in the mid-18th century. His sessions improved the pain he was experiencing but also resulted in minor amnesia, which lead him to recommend electric therapy trials on melancholic and “mad” patients who were not responding to other more conventional medicines of the time.

The first recorded modern electrotherapy treatment was given to a patient in 1743. The process was first used to treat mental illness in 1823-1824. At the time, electricity was being utilised in a wide variety of experiments, including the failed attempts at reanimation of deceased criminals.

2. Burdick

 Burdick Corporation’s Short Wave Diathermy Machine. Ref: 1995.44.599

But macabre experiments aside, electrotherapy was becoming increasingly common in the treatment of pain and other maladies, and hospitals began purchasing electrotherapy machines to use on their patients.

From the mid-19th century the focus was shifted to providing more localised treatment, rather than large shocks that affected the whole body. In 1856 Guillaume Duchenne discovered that an alternating current was better than a direct current as it provided better and more consistent results, and was gentler on the skin as it didn’t cause blisters.

Electrotherapy works by interfering with pain signals as they are transmitted to the brain, slowing them down and disrupting them. It also helps to speed up the healing of damaged tissue by causing the muscles to contract, which relaxes muscle spasms and helps to prevent atrophy.

3. Overbeck

 Ediswan’s Overbeck Rejuvenator Electrotherapy Machine. Ref: 1986.36

It is still commonly used today in the form of TENS machines and Interferential Treatment. TENS works by attaching sticky pad electrodes to the affected area and sending electrical signals across the skin. Low frequencies increase the production of endorphins, which naturally relieve pain, and high frequencies stimulate non-pain nerve fibres which send signals to the brain and stop the pain messages from getting through. Interferential Treatment is when two currents are passed through the skin and cross each other, the interference of which is similar to having low frequency stimulation deep under the skin.

Electrotherapy has also been used in the treatment of various cancers since the 1950s. It is still used to treat some mental illness, but now it is applied to the patient under anaesthetic.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum

Wanganui Technical College

The development of Wanganui Technical College mirrored the changing awareness of the curriculum needs of secondary education in early New Zealand.

New Zealand district high schools tended towards the conservative academic curriculum of British secondary schools. The need for art, technical and industrial skills led to the opening of Wanganui Technical School in 1892, widely known as the School of Art, one of the first four in the country.

The Wanganui District High School building on Victoria Avenue was dismantled to make way for the Technical School. In 1896 the buildings were extended to create space for classes in clay modeling, needle work, woodcarving and carpentry. In 1899 literature, languages, mathematics and experimental science were added.

1. Wanganui Technical College 1911

The newly built Wanganui Technical College on Ingestre Street, 1911.  The second storey was removed in 1929 after the Murchison earthquake.
Ref: 1965.127.2 Photographer: Frank Denton

In 1910 the wooden Technical School building was demolished and a new school was built in Ingestre Street. Renamed Wanganui Technical College, it opened in September 1911. Pupils from the Technical School transferred to the new College.

The Technical College was divided into five departments: high school, commercial, engineering, agriculture and art. At first there were more evening and weekend classes than day classes. From 1912 to 1922, evening classes were compulsory for young people under the age of seventeen who were not attending school. By 1914 the day school had 70 pupils in the general course, 66 in commercial, eight in agriculture, 34 in domestic and none in the art course. There were 792 enrolments in the evening school.

2. Workshop class 1920s

Group of Wanganui Technical College pupils in a car workshop class, 1920s.
Ref: SCS/TC/9 Photographer: Frank Denton

Subjects offered included plane and solid geometry, machine construction and applied mechanics and building construction, a number of art and design subjects, shorthand, arithmetic, and architecture. Also offered were the academic subjects of French and Latin for those pupils intent on matriculation in order to attend university or sitting public service exams.

The commercial department was an exemplar in preparing pupils for work success. In 1915 the Government junior typist exam required 80 words per minute in shorthand and 32 words per minute in typing. A typist with this qualification could expect to earn £66 per annum. A pass in the senior exam meant an increase in salary to £96 pa.

Subjects studied in the agriculture department included, botany, zoology, dairying, farm blacksmithing and gardening. Subjects studied in the domestic course included millinery, hygiene, physiology and applied art. In 1918 a sixth form for boys was opened for those wishing to study for further exams such as accountancy professionals.

3. College Council 1933

Wanganui Technical College Council Group, 1933.
Ref: SCS/TC/8 Photographer: Unknown

In 1933 the recently closed Central Infants School buildings and grounds were handed over to cater for the growing Technical College roll. By 1957 the roll was closed to girls; the last girls finished at Technical College in 1962. Later, two large woodwork shops and two new classrooms were added. In the 1960s a major rebuilding programme began. By 1961 work had started on a new gymnasium and plans had been approved for a building to accommodate one thousand students. Wanganui Technical College was renamed Wanganui Boys College in 1964.

In 1994 the school became co-educational again and was renamed Wanganui City College.


Libby Sharpe is the Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Mokoia Meteorite – An Amazing Space Rock

NASA recently announced that organic molecules have been found on Mars, delighting space enthusiasts, but they neglected to add that extraterrestrial molecules can also be found in Whanganui.

Every living thing on Earth is made of organic molecules and their presence points to the possible existence of living cells. While it is unlikely that sophisticated aliens will be found on Mars, any type of primitive life, even fossilised, increases the possibility of discovering more complex life elsewhere in space.

Organic matter from space is rare but it has occasionally turned up within meteorites, debris left over from the formation of the solar system more than 5,000 million years ago. Meteorites contain varying quantities of rock and metal. Captured by Earth’s gravity, they fall through the atmosphere, turning into fireballs and exploding before impact.

Mokoia Meterorite

Fragments of the Mokoia Meteorite. Ref: 1805.357

The Mokoia Meteorite in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection is actually two parts of a much larger rock of carbonaceous chondrite, the rarest of all meteor types. Carbonaceous chondrite is mainly composed of carbon: the atom that defines organic molecules.

The fragments fell at Mokoia, about 30 km north of Whanganui, on 26 November 1908. In the middle of an ordinary November day a flash caused witnesses to look up at a bright ball of light rushing overhead trailing a silvery tail. Whanganui witnesses spoke of the delay between the light and the subsequent loud explosion, described as a “cannonade”, heard from North Taranaki to Hawke’s Bay. The main body of the meteor was seen falling into the sea off Castlecliff Beach in Whanganui.

There were determined efforts to locate the extra-terrestrial visitor, but only a twist of fate preserved it for meteorite hunter W Syme. If it had embedded itself in the ground he could easily have missed it; however, it struck a tree near Mokoia and was still smouldering days later when he reached it.

The meteorite was passed to the Museum and it was only later that analysis revealed how rare and amazing the space rock is. The supernova star explosions that enriched our region of the galaxy and eventually gave rise to our solar system, threw out plenty of carbon and lumps of it still float about until they hit a planet like ours.

It is possible that NASA’s organic carbon molecules arrived on Mars the same way as the carbon in our meteorite. Mars has probably also been dusted with this primordial material over the years.

Some theorists suggest that carbon-rich meteorites may have contributed to the beginning of life on Earth. Consequently, scientists from around the world have requested and received small pieces of the Mokoia Meteorite. The resultant scientific papers record that it also contains amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. They aren’t in the proportions made by life on Earth but their presence is significant and amazing. We are extremely fortunate to have this very rare piece of space rock here in Whanganui.


Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Dr Kater’s Voyage

The following extracts are from a journal kept by Dr William Henry Kater during his voyage to New Zealand aboard the ship Sir Charles Forbes, which departed London in May 1842. He was engaged as Surgeon Superintendent on board what was the first ship to sail from London to Nelson direct. His original spelling and punctuation have been kept intact.

2. Accommodation on board

 Plan of the accommodation aboard the Sir Charles Forbes on a previous voyage in 1839

1 May. Set off from London at 8a.m. to Gravesend by Steam boat where the Ship was lying. Having had but three days notice I had very little time to prepare.  Before going on board I met on the Pier at Gravesend Mr. Somes the Governer of the Company to whom I am indebted for my appointment. He was very kind in his advice and wishes.

17 May. At sunset this evening the funeral of the child that died yesterday took place.  I have often witnessed a funeral on shore but unless a soldier’s I never saw one equalled in sadness and impressiveness to one at sea … the pure feeling of the hearts break out when the souls prison is launched into the unfathomable ocean, fit emblem of eternity.

27 May. Saw the first flying fish today thought it a gull at first.

1 June. Surrounded by an immense shoal of porpoises, tried to shoot some but did not succeed.

8 June. Hurrah!  At four this morning we crossed the Equinoctial line and find ourselves in the Southern Hemisphere in the Ethiopia Ocean.

22 June. We had an addition this morning to our Mess on board. Mrs. Chamberlain having been confined and given birth to a daughter.

25 June. One cannot sleep in peace for the rascally outfitter did not send the hammock I purchased and I was obliged to use the wooden ledge called “a bunk” from which an occasional heavy lurch will transfer me to the floor where I must industriously pick myself up again.

20 July. Standing this day upon the poop musing upon the mutability of mortal affairs and gazing upon the deep a huge black mass met my view and before I could call to ask anyone what it could be I perceived the unwieldy bulk of a large whale apparently about 50 feet long and about as many feet from the ship, whilst with others looking on and wondering, the creature I suppose saw the ship for it suddenly spouted high in the air and turning up his fluke disappeared. The water he spouted was brought by the wind upon the quarter deck and covered us all with a cloud of spray, wetting us through.

30 July. Myself rather tired and sleepy having been up these two nights in attendance upon the most impatient patient that I ever had.

11 August. An overheard conversation between a husband and wife from Somerset:-

Wife. “Job dost thee love I?”

Husband. “What dost think?”

Wife.    “Noa but dost thee?”

Husband. “Love thee I could gnaw thee like mutton”

20 August. Before daybreak this morning word was passed to the Captain’s cabin “Land right ahead”, few but those who have been at sea know the thrilling interest that such a sound awakes after four months confinement in about 30 yards by eight.  As soon as the sound reached below the clarinet player seized his instrument threw his legs out of the bunk and struck up “Happy Land”. It remains yet to be proved whether he is a false prophet.

1. Nelson Examiner 27 August 1842

 Immigration Office Report on the passengers aboard the Sir Charles Forbes, taken from the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 27 August 1842

Dr Kater did not have long to live. He was drowned in Nelson Harbour in September 1843 when the flat bottom punt he was in capsized. Two boys who were with him at the time were saved, one by swimming ashore and the other by clinging to the punt.