Late in the twentieth century, the young doctor Goodheart fails in a city practice and accepts a salaried position in the country.  Even there his difficulties persist. A challenging patient—the Reverend Pastor--refuses a tiny muscle biopsy that would not only confirm the diagnosis of trichinosis, but establish the doctor’s reputation. “I would rather die than let myself be skewered alive!” the pastor shouts (p. 11).

Deeply discouraged Goodheart wanders into the country at twilight, sighing, “If only there were a means of making the human body as transparent as jelly fish” (p. 13). Suddenly a woman appears in a blaze of light. She is “Electra the spirit of the twentieth century” (p. 15). She gives the astonished doctor a box and bids him open the lid. The nearby tree immediately becomes “as transparent as a jelly fish” (p.17). Next the box, judiciously aimed, illuminates the inner workings of a frog.

Goodheart applies his box to the ailing pastor and sees parasites teaming throughout his body. Then he effects a dramatic cure with helminthotoxin made from the worms themselves—a treatment that had been invented sometime during the century.

The box proves to be a simple electrical device, easily replicated. Declining financial recognition, to the vexation of his wife, Goodheart communicates the workings of the box to the world with no mention of Electra. But fame and riches flow his way and he dies in old age an honored man.


The most remarkable feature of this simple story is its date of publication in 1893 (the preface is dated autumn 1892). Hopf’s imagined solution to the difficulty of medical diagnosis bears an uncanny resemblance to X-rays first announced by Roentgen only three years later in December 1895. Another prescient feature of the story is the cure by “helminthotoxin.”

As a result of its timing, this story invites discussion about context in the history of scientific discovery. By 1892, organ-based diagnosis had been established for nearly a century and germ theory was a decade old. Scientists were concentrating on finding ways of detecting internal changes before their patients became cadavers. They also engaged in an equally vigorous search for magic bullets to kill the newly discovered germs and parasites that caused disease. The first successful antimicrobial agents were developed in the early twentieth century—and some antibiotics were indeed derived from pathogens.

The story also emphasizes the point that a phenomenon cannot be appreciated, or a technology invented, until a need has been felt. It also implies that the act of imagination may be an important stimulus to science. Hopf had situated the imminent discovery a hundred years into the future, and it was not the achievement of human endeavour, but the gift of a magic spirit.

This elegant edition is a photostat of Hopf’s original in gothic German script on the left page with an English translation by physician-historian Paul Potter on the right. A brief introduction provides context and information about Hopf’s life as a doctor and author.


Translated from the German by Paul Potter

Primary Source



University of Western Ontario

Place Published

London, Ontario




Paul Potter

Page Count