Dr. Joy’s Undoing
By Kim Clarke
I regret exceedingly, and as much as one can regret, the whole of this unfortunate business, and I have done everything in my power to undo it.– Dr. Douglas A. Joy
Chapter 1 A Prized Employee
By all signs, the future was very bright for Dr. Douglas Joy in the summer of 1881.
At age 27, he was a physician in the Department of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Michigan. He was working alongside doctors who had been his professors when he graduated at the top of his medical class and who now saw him as a colleague. Along with his U-M medical degree, Joy held a diploma in mining engineering from Columbia University, where he enrolled at age 16. He loved science and scientific devices.
He was teaching in an exciting, new field that fused his expertise in engineering and medicine: electrotherapeutics, which saw doctors apply weak pulses of electricity to treat diseases and disorders in patients. U-M started offering electrotherapeutics in 1878. It was an optional course for second- and third-year medical students, but the sections always filled up; by 1881, the entire graduating class had taken the class. The reason: Doctor Joy.
“Without his care and knowledge, [the courses] would not have grown to their present large proportion,” said Dr. John Langley. He had hired Joy as an assistant, and now was writing the Board of Regents to give him a pay raise and a bigger title. Joy was irreplaceable, he said, and U-M could not risk losing him.
“It would be impossible for any one person suddenly joining this department to do the work he does without any special training,” Langley wrote.
That was June of 1881. By June of 1882, Douglas Joy was fighting for his job and, more important, his reputation. His story is an all but forgotten academic showdown that reached the highest levels of the University, called into question matters of university governance, and altered several careers.
Chapter 2 “An Excellent Apparatus”
It began with an invention of sorts. As head of electrotherapeutics, Dr. John Langley was asked to construct an electrical belt for a patient. Langley was busy and turned to Joy, his assistant, who promptly created the belt and delivered it to the requesting physician, Dr. Donald Maclean.
The use of electricity in medicine was soaring in the latter half of the 19th century. Galvanic belts, electrical baths and other low-voltage therapies were being used to treat practically any malady a doctor might encounter on any given day: yeast infections, lethargy, moles, depression, sore backs, lumbago, migraines, asthma and impotence. Some treatments were successful; many were not.
Joy’s belt was built to treat a patient with muscle weakness in a leg. “The apparatus worked satisfactorily,” Joy recounted, “and Professor Maclean was so pleased with it that he subsequently ordered through me one or two others for application to the arm and elsewhere.” In fact, Maclean encouraged Joy to consider selling the device because “it was an excellent apparatus.”
“The idea had never entered my head before,” Joy said, “and even then I gave it no consideration, for I knew of no one who would be willing to go into the project.”
Eventually, though, he located a company to manufacture and market his electrical belt. It was an early foray into what universities today call technology transfer: take the cures and inventions of academe and move them into the marketplace. Dr. Joy’s Electrical Device, as it would be known, became the product of Wagner & Co., a patent medicine company based in Joy’s hometown of Marshall, Michigan. Joy turned to his U-M colleagues for endorsements, or “certificates,” which they readily supplied for the manufacturer.
— I have no hesitation in recommending Dr. Joy’s Galvanic Belt, as I have had practical proof of its thorough efficiency. – Dr. Donald Maclean, chair of surgery
— I have examined Dr. Joy’s Galvanic Belt and find it a convenient and efficient instrument for maintaining and applying a mild and continuous current of electricity. It is, of course, useful wherever such a current is of benefit. – Dr. George E. Frothingham, chair of ophthalmology
— I have examined the belt … and find that it produces, when properly used, a mild galvanic current, and it will be useful when such a current is needed. – Dr. Alonzo B. Palmer, chair of the Department of Medicine and Surgery
Joy signed a contract guaranteeing him a commission for each belt sold, Wagner & Co. opened a sales office in downtown Chicago, and business was ready to take off in the summer of 1881.
And that’s when sparks began to fly.
Chapter 3 Restored to “Perfect Manhood”
Is it Quackery in High Places?
The question jumped off the front page of the Michigan Medical News, a Detroit publication whose editor was apoplectic. Doctors at the University of Michigan, the report said, were attaching their names to a medical device that reeked of charlatanism.
A detailed sales brochure sent to Michigan Medical News and countless other publications left little to the imagination with regard to the galvanic belt and its attachments. Dr. Joy’s Electrical Device was being sold as a cure for male impotence.
“This applies a current of electricity directly to the testicles and spermatic cords, and during the calm repose of night, when nature does its most effective work, the assistance rendered by the electrical current passing from the scrotum device to the testicles and along the spermatic cords, rapidly tones up the organs of vitality and soon restores the victim to health, strength and perfect manhood.”
Dr. Joy’s Electrical Device would also deliver relief from liver and kidney problems, sciatica, rheumatism and “nervous debility.” It was, however, “especially recommended” for men ailing from sexual complaints – whether that meant too much activity in the bedroom or not enough.
“For all chronic diseases and all diseases of the genital organs, such as spermatorrhea, seminal weakness, involuntary emissions, sexual exhaustion, loss of vitality, vigor and manhood, and all weakness of the sexual organs, resulting from excessive sexuality, contracting of some loathsome disease, or indulgences and abuses of the habits of youth, Dr. Joy’s electric scrotum device should be worn in connection with the belt and spinal band at night.”
(There also was a belt for women who, if interested, could write for a pamphlet with “full particulars.”)
In the 38-page brochure, Wagner & Co. regaled consumers with the benefits of Dr. Joy’s invention, and made it clear the electric belts carried a stamp of approval from professionals: “Men of science, men of learning, men of knowledge, men of whom it may be said that in their profession none stand higher … the renowned medical faculty in the celebrated University of Michigan.”
The editor of Michigan Medical News was Dr. John J. Mulheron, a professor at the Detroit Medical College (precursor to today’s School of Medicine at Wayne State University). Mulheron rarely held back with his opinions, particularly when it came to competitors. He could not resist using his journal to taunt physicians in Ann Arbor for endorsing such a gimmick.
“Has the University of Michigan,” he sniffed, “prostituted its high name by lending it to the support of quackery?”
Chapter 4 “I Was Exceedingly Chagrined”
Douglas Joy knew he’d made a mistake, and a serious one at that. Wagner & Co. had misled him with its marketing plans. When he saw the sales brochure for his invention – before it was in the hands of newspapers – Joy went to his dean.
“As soon as I glanced at it I saw it was as quackish an advertisement as was ever published. I was exceedingly chagrined, and troubled as to what course to pursue; but I considered it my duty to at once show it to the members of the faculty who had given me their certificates,” Joy said. The device being marketed, as well as its purported uses, bore no resemblance to his invention. The sales tactics left him “much disgusted and angry.”
In meeting with faculty, Joy was surprised by the indifference he encountered. One colleague said he believed the sketch of a shirtless man in an advertisement would help sales. Another professor, “although saying that it was quackish, thought that the worst thing about it was the nude figure on the cover,” Joy recounted.
Still, Joy demanded that Wagner & Co. cease advertising and sales of his invention. Illustrated ads for Dr. Joy’s Electrical Device were appearing across the country. The Green Bay Press Gazette, Austin American-Statesman, Boston Globe, Nebraska State Journal, Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, Scientific American and dozens more publications carried ads for the device, all bearing the imprimatur of the University of Michigan.
But it was the Michigan Medical News and its allegation of quackery that riled U-M’s medical faculty. In particular, Dr. George Frothingham, the eye doctor who earlier certified Joy’s invention, now wanted the Board of Regents to deal with the matter. The regents declined, in September 1881, but Frothingham was undeterred. “Efforts will be made at once to stop this unauthorized use of our names,” he vowed, “and to purge the faculty of any member shown to have been responsible for, or in sympathy with, the publication of the pamphlet.” He was, of course, excluding his own endorsement.
Chapter 5 “For the Best Interests”
Frothingham agitated for months. Where Joy felt he had put the matter to rest by dismissing the manufacturer, the ophthalmology professor believed his reputation, and that of the University, was sullied. Advertisements were still appearing in newspapers, with weak explanations from Wagner & Co. saying they tried to cancel them. Frothingham wanted Joy fired.
On a Monday afternoon in February 1882, Frothingham and eight members of the medical faculty gathered in the Medical Building. Dean Alonzo B. Palmer also invited Interim President Henry Simmons Frieze, who was running the University while President James B. Angell was away in China. This was to be a serious discussion.
Frothingham presented a resolution he had drafted. “It is for the best interests of this school,” he told his colleagues, “that Dr. Joy be removed from his position in the Department of Medicine and Surgery in the University, and that the dean of this faculty be instructed to appear at the next meeting of the Board of Regents and urge their immediate action upon this resolution and request.”
As Frothingham went on about the merits of his argument, several professors left the room. So did Interim President Frieze. The dean, who remained behind, concurred with Frothingham; Joy’s actions had brought “great scandal” upon the University. Palmer said that with the consent of his department, he would ask the regents to dismiss Joy.
Nine professors initially attended the meeting. But with so many out of the room, it took the vote of just three – Palmer, Frothingham and Dr. Donald Maclean – to affirm the motion to fire Dr. Joy. A majority of a minority of medical faculty cast Douglas Joy’s fate. All that was needed now was the support of the Board of Regents.
Chapter 6 “There Is No Repentance”
The objections of physicians like Frothingham and Maclean to Joy’s perceived misstep came during an era when U-M was working to establish itself as a serious, professional school for teaching and exploring the science of medicine. U-M medical students were now required to complete a three-year program of study – unlike students at many other medical schools – and laboratory work was mandatory. As the 20th century grew closer, Michigan was eager to shed any image as a “country medical school.”
As winter gave way to spring, Frothingham and Joy came before the University’s governing board and, behind closed doors, presented their cases. Frothingham submitted a 25-page argument against Joy, who responded with 24 pages explaining and defending his actions.
Frothingham said Joy knew he was working with a con man when he signed on with Wagner & Co., deceived the faculty, and then did little to correct matters. “He deliberately betrayed the confidence of colleagues by handing over the certificates he obtained from them to a notorious swindler, to aid him in gaining the confidence of the public and duping his victims, thus compromising their reputations and that of the school in which they are engaged as teachers.”
The 46-year-old Frothingham went so far as to compare any empathy for Joy to the sympathy being showered upon the notorious outlaw Jesse James, killed just a month earlier. “Pity has strange freaks. Without being retrospective for an example we find it weeping over the violent death of the bloody Jesse James, without a tear or sigh for the victims of his numerous butcheries, denouncing with horror those who were instrumental in stopping his murderous career, but expressing no indignation at his numerous crimes.”
(Frothingham’s lengthy report may also be the first time regents were expected to read about sexual impotence, seminal weakness and scrotal devices.)
Joy argued he had no idea he had placed his invention in the hands of a huckster, despite being from the same small town. “I was ignorant of any of the swindling operations which was charged against him,” he told regents, “and had reason to believe him a straight business man at the time I entrusted him with my business …” Joy felt he was being hounded by Frothingham; he admitted, again, that he made a mistake and took steps to remedy it, but the senior professor would not let it go.
“I regret exceedingly, and as much as one can regret, the whole of this unfortunate business, and I have done everything in my power to undo it, and to make reparation for whatever injury may have come to the good name of the University from it,” Joy said, “but if repentance implies a confession of deliberate and intentional wrongdoing, I admit there is no repentance proper.”
After hearing from Joy and Frothingham, the regents gathered on the morning of June 28, 1882, in the office of President Angell, who was back on campus after a year abroad as American minister to China. While away, Angell had negotiated treaties between two nations, China and the United States. Now he faced two physicians pitted against each other, both claiming to do what was best for the University of Michigan.
Angell and the regents went into executive session. When they emerged, Regent Byron M. Cutcheon spoke for the board. Yes, he said, Dr. Joy erred in his negotiations with Wagner & Co. to sell his invention. Yes, there was a violation of medical ethics. And, yes, the entire affair gave U-M’s enemies “occasion to make scandal.”
But Regent Cutcheon said Joy had acted in good faith in trying to remediate the problem and never intended to damage the medical school or its faculty. “We do not find,” Cutcheon said, “that he has been guilty of any conduct requiring dismissal from the University.”
Joy was exonerated. But regents said nothing of Frothingham and other professors who wanted him gone.
Chapter 7 “I Will Endure Anything”
In his career, Dr. George Frothingham was known to be an excellent surgeon and ophthalmologist. He also was called a “controversialist” and “aggressive in character.”
“Once convinced that he had the right side of the dispute, (and he never entered a contest without this conviction), he was in the fight from start to finish,” a colleague recalled, “and always bore himself that his opposer might beware of him.”
Frothingham refused to let the Joy matter rest. Two weeks after the Board of Regents acquitted Joy, Frothingham issued an ultimatum. He would resign from the faculty unless Joy was fired. Dr. Donald Maclean, a surgeon and one-time advocate of Joy’s device, joined Frothingham in submitting his resignation.
For the Board of Regents, this was a crisis. Frothingham and Maclean were senior members of the medical school, overseeing ophthalmology and surgery, respectively. Joy, while listed in U-M catalogs as a professor and member of the faculty, technically was an assistant to a professor. (This murky classification did not slip by the Michigan Medical News: “It is recognized as one of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for less imposing college concerns to fill their faculty list with a large number of names for ‘effect,’ but it was never suspected that the great university of a great state would be guilty of such a device.”)
“Drs. Maclean and Frothingham cannot afford to leave the University in the manner and for the reasons given,” Regent Ebenezer Grosvenor wrote to Angell. He added: “We must retain them if possible.” He suggested that Dr. John Langley, Joy’s supervisor, convince him to resign.
Once again the Board of Regents met to consider Joy’s fate. By now, his electrical device was dead and Joy was spending the summer away from Ann Arbor. Any charges of quackery had faded. At a special Friday night session in the president’s office in late July 1882, the regents argued behind closed doors in a “very animated” meeting that lasted two hours. They emerged with a resolution that stood out for its feebleness:
“Without regard to the merits of any controversy which may exist or may have existed between the members of the faculty of the University upon any question whatever, and however the Board of Regents may have decided or may decide any such question as between them, whenever it becomes apparent that there is such want of harmonious action and good feeling among them as is or will be detrimental to the best interests of the University or as will result in the loss of the services of any of its members, it becomes the duty of the Regents to dispense with the services of those, whose departure will produce the least injurious results.”
Dr. Joy, they said, was expendable. He must hand Angell his resignation within two weeks or be dismissed. At the same time, regents rejected the resignations of Frothingham and Maclean.
In a handwritten letter to Angell, Joy refused to quit. “I know that there is but one course for me to pursue. I cannot think under the circumstances of resigning in the face of such action upon their part. I will endure anything rather than now surrender up to them and thus virtually confess to the profession that I am guilty of the base charges which they have made against me.”
He added: “It would ruin my future prospects by at once depriving me of what is my sole capital and what I hope I shall always value as the best part of my capital: my character professionally and as a man.”
On August 10, 1882, Dr. Douglas Joy was fired.
Chapter 8 “Weakness and Indecision”
Five regents voted for Joy’s dismissal, including Regent George Duffield Jr., who “did not think the University could dispense with the services of so eminent men as Doctors Frothingham and Maclean.”
Regent Austin Blair, who twenty years earlier served as Michigan’s governor, cast the lone vote in support of Joy. He was unswayed by threats from Frothingham and Maclean. “It is high time they were taught a lesson. I have no doubt but the University could live without them. While they are eminent in their profession, they owe what they are to the University. The success of this great institution does not depend on the retention of one or two men.”
Two regents missed the meeting and later said they would have voted against Joy’s dismissal.
Any bad publicity generated by the initial advertisements of Dr. Joy’s Electrical Device was supplanted by the biting criticism that followed Joy’s firing.
The Detroit Lancet wondered who was truly in charge of the institution. “It would seem as if these two professors were running the Medical Department of the University. No doubt this is very satisfactory to themselves, but it places the regents in rather an indifferent light. Here again the bane of politics comes in to decide questions pertaining to the conduct of a great university.”
The Detroit Free Press called the Board of Regents “marrowless,” adding “they have shown lamentable weakness and indecision.”
And Joy’s hometown newspaper, the Marshall Daily Chronicle, said Frothingham and Maclean had squandered any goodwill felt by taxpayers toward U-M by turning the medical school into “a festering sore” rife with petty bickering.
“President Angell, whatever other qualities he may possess, is utterly destitute of backbone and decision of character,” the editors wrote, “and has allowed these two pretentious snobs, whose proper sphere is the slums and the prize-ring rather than the university, to ride over him roughshod, The regents are little better.”
Doctor Joy left Ann Arbor, bounced around the country a bit and settled in Omaha, where he opened a medical practice. In June of 1887 – five years after his difficult summer with the Board of Regents – he developed intestinal pains. As his physician father and mother rushed from Michigan to Nebraska, Joy died of what most likely was appendicitis. He was 33.
Doctors Frothingham and Maclean teamed up against the Board of Regents again in 1889, when U-M leaders were intensely debating whether to move the medical school to Detroit. The two physicians lobbied publicly that Detroit was the better location because, in part, of the variety of patients and cases a big city offered medical students. Frothingham went so far as to appear before state legislators and argue against giving U-M any funds for a new hospital in Ann Arbor.
The regents were not amused. Seven year earlier, in the wake of the Joy episode, Regent Blair washed his hands of Frothingham and Maclean, saying, “It is high time they were taught a lesson.” That time had arrived.
“Professors Maclean and Frothingham,” Blair said, “have placed themselves in such antagonism … both by their language and conduct, that their usefulness as professors in the Medical Department of the University has been so far impaired that it is not desirable that they should longer continue their connection with the University.”
The professors submitted their resignations to the regents. This time, they were accepted.
Sources: Board of Regents records, Bentley Historical Library; James B. Angell Papers, Bentley Historical Library; Statement of the relations of Dr. D. A. Joy to M. V. Wagner in the manufacture and sale of electrical devices, by George E. Frothingham; Reply of Dr. D. A. Joy to the statement made by Dr. George E. Frothingham; John Williams Langley papers, Bentley Historical Library; University of Michigan Medical School records, Bentley Historical Library; Memorial addresses and resolutions on George E. Frothingham, M.D., by Wayne County Medical Society; Medicine at Michigan: A History of the University of Michigan Medical School at the Bicentennial by Dea H. Boster and Joel D. Howell; Michigan Medical News; The Physician and Surgeon