The Electroshock Quotationary



(Multiple entries for any given year are arranged alphabetically by the writer’s last name.)

A.D. 47? — The use of nonconvulsive electrotherapy as a method for alleviating
symptoms through suggestion dates back to Scribonius Largus (c. A.D. 47), who treated
the headaches of the Roman emperor with an electric eel.
FRANZ G. ALEXANDER (Hungarian-born U.S. psychoanalyst) and SHELDON T.
SELESNICK (U.S. psychiatrist), The History of Psychiatry, ch. 18, 1966.
1200-1500 — Far from recognizing their plight for what it was, the witch hunters and
exorcists fought the witches’ delusions on the level of the deluded, and whenever the
patient failed to respond to exorcism by persuasion, prayer or the sacraments, they saw
no choice but to resort to their own brand of shock treatment: burning at the stake.
JAN EHRENWALD (U.S. psychiatrist), ed., From Medicine Man to Freud, ch. 7,

1400-1600 — Already towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the new
period an interest developed in attempting to treat schizophrenics by some form of
shock. In Switzerland, schizophrenics were put into nets and lowered into lakes until
they were almost drowned and then pulled out again. Sometimes short-lasting
remissions were witnessed. In other countries patients were hit with chains and whips.
Some of these patients died. But again there were some very impressive recoveries and
remissions. This kind of primitive shock treatment was considered to be of a magic [sic]
nature. It was believed that the devil had possession of the human body and mind, and
the only logical consequence of such ideas seemed to be the attempt to make the devil’s
stay in these strange places of residence as miserable as possible.
HANS HOFF (Austrian electroshock psychiatrist), “History of Organic Treatment of
Schizophrenia,” published in Max Rinkel and Harold E. Himwich, eds., Insulin
Treatment in Psychiatry, 1959. The term schizophrenia was coined by the Swiss
psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in the early 1900s.

1755 — Probably the first electroconvulsive treatment for mental illness was
administered by the French physician J. B. LeRoy in 1755 on a patient with a
psychogenic blindness.
FRANZ G. ALEXANDER (Hungarian-born U.S. psychoanalyst) and SHELDON T.
SELESNICK (U.S. psychiatrist), The History of Psychiatry, ch. 18, 1966.

1756 — Having procured an apparatus on purpose, I ordered several persons to be
electrified who were ill of various disorders; some of whom found an immediate, some a
gradual, cure. From this time I appointed, first some hours in every week and afterward
an hour in every day, wherein any that desired it might try the virtue of this surprising
medicine…. To this day, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, have received unspeakable
good, I have not known one man, woman, or child, who has received any hurt thereby;
so when I hear any talk of the danger of being electrified (especially if they are medical
men who talk so), I cannot but impute it to great want either of sense or honesty.
JOHN WESLEY (English evangelist and founder of Methodism), journal, 9 November
1756. Comment: “The desideratum [: or, electricity made plain and useful. By a lover of


mankind, and of common sense] was written to popularize what he considered the
cheapest, safest, and most successful treatment for ‘nervous Cases of every Kind,’
namely electricity” (Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine, eds., “John Wesley,” Three
Hundred Years of Psychiatry (1535-1860), 1963). The desideratum was published in

1787 — In the month of November, 1787, a porter of the India warehouses was sent to
me by a lady of great humanity for advice, being in a state of melancholy [for almost a
year], induced by the death of one of his children….

He was quiet, would suffer his wife to lead him about the house, but he never spoke to
her; he sighed frequently, and was inattentive to everything that passed….

I covered his head with a flannel, and rubbed the electric sparks all over the cranium;
he seemed to feel it disagreeable, but said nothing. On the second visit, finding no
inconvenience had ensued, I passed six small shocks through the brain in different
directions. As soon as he got into an adjoining room, and saw his wife, he spoke to her,
and in the evening was cheerful, expressing himself, as if he thought he should soon go
to his work again. I repeated the shock in like manner on the third and fourth day, after
which he went to work: I desired to see him every Sunday, which I did for three months
after, and he remained perfectly well.
JOHN BIRCH (English surgeon), “John Birch,” published in Richard Hunter and Ida
Macalpine, eds., Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry (1535-1860), 1963.

1804, 1872 — Aldini was reported to have cured two cases of melancholia by passing
galvanic current through the brain in 1804. In England, Clifford Allbutt in 1872 used the
passage of electric current through the head for treatment of mania, brain-wasting,
dementia and melancholia.
PETER SKRABANEK, “Convulsive Therapy — A Critical Appraisal of Its Origins and
Value,” Irish Medical Journal, June 1986.

1881 — [In cases of enuresis, or bedwetting] I apply usually [in the region of the boy’s
sexual organ] a tolerably strong current for one to two minutes; at the close, a wire
electrode is introduced about two centimeters into the urethra — in girls I apply “small”
sponge electrode between the labia close to the meatus urethrae — and the faradic
current passed for one to two minutes with such a strength that a distinct, somewhat
painful sensation is produced.
WILHELM ERB (German physician), Handbook of Electrotherapy, 1881, quoted in
Thomas S. Szasz, The Myth of Psychotherapy: Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric,
and Repression, ch. 6, sect. 1, 1978.

1893-1895 — [For a woman diagnosed with hysteria and a muscle disorder] we
recommended the continuation of systematic kneading and faradization of the sensitive
muscles, regardless of resulting pain, and I reserved to myself treatment of her legs with
high tension electric currents, in order to be able to keep in touch with her….

In this way we brought about a slight improvement. In particular, she seemed to take
quite a liking to the painful shocks produced by the high tension apparatus, and the
stronger these were the more they seemed to push her own pains into the background.
In the meantime my colleague was preparing the ground for psychical treatment, and


when, after four weeks of my pretense treatment, I proposed the other method and gave
her some account of its procedure and mode of operation, I met with quick
understanding and little resistance.
SIGMUND FREUD (Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, a form of
psychotherapy), Studies in Hysteria, ch. 2, sect. 5, 1893-1895, tr. James and Alix
Strachey, 1955. Thirty years later, Freud commented on this practice, “My knowledge of
electrotherapy was derived from W. Erb’s textbook, which provided detailed
instructions for the treatment of all the symptoms of nervous diseases. Unluckily, I was
soon driven to see that following these instructions was of no help whatever and that
what I had taken for an epitome of exact observations was merely the construction of
fantasy…. The successes of electric treatment in nervous disorder (in so far as there were
any) were the effect of suggestion on the part of the physician” (An Autobiographical
Study, ch. 1, 1925, tr. James Strachey, 1927).

1914-1918 — During the First World War, among the persons responsible for torturing
soldiers with painful electric shocks and disguising the brutality as therapy was the
foremost neuropsychiatrist of Austria-Hungary and perhaps of Europe, Julius Wagner-
THOMAS S. SZASZ (Hungarian-born U.S. psychiatrist), The Myth of Psychotherapy:
Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric, and Repression, ch. 6, sect. 1, 1978. In 1927,
Wagner-Jauregg receives the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for introducing
malaria treatment in medicine and psychiatry.

1930s — Psychiatrists had used a variety of aggressive measures to control mental
patients during the three centuries of the [asylum] system, but the 1930s saw a new
approach in technology. In previous years assaults on the patients had been largely
directed at the whole body rather than the brain. Patients were whipped, strapped into
spinning chairs, dunked into cold water, poisoned with toxic agents, bled, placed in
straitjackets, and thrown into solitary confinement. But with the third decade of the
twentieth century, psychiatrists discovered it was more efficient to attack the brain
directly. The major breakthrough took place in 1928, when Sakel, the inventor of insulin
coma therapy, first discovered that addicts accidentally overdosed with insulin became
more docile and manageable. The widespread acceptance of insulin coma therapy in the
1930s paved the way for a variety of brain-damaging convulsive therapies [including
electroshock], and ultimately for direct surgical destruction of the highest centers of the
brain (lobotomy).
PETER R. BREGGIN (U.S. psychiatrist), Electroshock: Its Brain-Disabling Effects,
ch. 10, 1979.


1938 — Italian psychiatrists Ugo Cerletti (1877-1963) and Lucio Bini (1908-1964)
introduced l’elettroshock, Cerletti’s coinage, at the University of Rome in 1938.

The first experimental subject was identified only as “S.E.” He had been picked up by
the police who had found him wandering about in a railway station. The Police
Commissioner of Rome sent him to Cerletti’s institute for observation with a note
reading that “he does not appear to be in full possession of his mental faculties.” Cerletti
described what happened next:

“A diagnosis of schizophrenic syndrome was made based on his passive behavior,
incoherence, low affective reserves, hallucinations, deliriant ideas of being influenced,
neologisms. This subject was chosen for the first experiment of induced electric
convulsions in man.

“Two large electrodes were applied to the frontoparietal regions, and I decided to
start cautiously with a low-intensity current of 80 volts for 0.2 seconds. As soon as the
current was introduced, the patient reacted with a jolt and his body muscles stiffened:
then he fell back on the bed without loss of consciousness. He started to sing abruptly
at the top of his voice, then he quieted down. Naturally, we, who were conducting the
experiment, were under great emotional strain and felt that we had already taken
quite a risk.

“Nevertheless, it was quite evident to all of us that we had been using a too low
voltage. It was proposed that we should allow the patient to have some rest and repeat
the experiment the next day. All at once, the patient, who evidently had been following
the conversation, said clearly and solemnly, without his usual gibberish: ‘Not another
one! It’s deadly!’”

The next day, despite the subject’s plea, Cerletti administered a stronger shock which
caused a seizure. Thus “the first experiment of induced electric convulsions in man”
(Cerletti’s words) was carried out against the will of the subject with no one’s
authorization other than that of the person conducting the experiment.

Earlier in Rome, Cerletti had experimented with pigs and later wrote, “Having
obtained authorization for experimenting from the director of the slaughterhouse,
Professor Torti, I carried out tests, not only subjecting the pigs to the current for ever-
increasing periods of time, but also applying the current in various ways across the
head, across the neck, and across the chest.”

Referring to the first electroshock experiment on a human being, Cerletti wrote,
“When I saw the patient’s reaction, I thought to myself: ‘This ought to be abolished.’
Ever since I have looked forward to the time when another treatment would replace
LEONARD ROY FRANK (U.S. electroshock survivor and editor), summary based on
the following articles: Cerletti, “Electroshock Therapy,” published in Arthur M. Sackler
et al., eds., The Great Physiodynamic Therapies in Psychiatry: An Historical
Appraisal, 1956; Cerletti, “Old and New Information about Electroshock,” American
Journal of Psychiatry, August 1950; and Frank J. Ayd Jr., “Guest Editorial: Ugo Cerletti
(1877-1963),” Psychosomatics, November-December 1963. Comment: “S.E. was a
complete stranger to Cerletti, whose help he did not seek (and whose intervention he
later rejected). In actuality, S.E. was a prisoner: he had been ‘arrested’ by the police for
‘wandering about,’ and instead of being tried for his offense, he was sent to Cerletti.
Although [S.E. was] sent to the hospital expressly ‘for observation,’ Cerletti flagrantly
disobeyed the instructions of the Police Commissioner of Rome: instead of observing


S.E., he used him as an experimental subject for electroshock. Cerletti does not mention
having obtained permission for his experiment from anyone…. Cerletti writes that ‘we,
who were conducting the experiment, were under great emotional strain and felt that we
had already taken quite a risk’; but he says nothing about the risk to which S.E. had been
subjected without his consent. Throughout the experiment, S.E. was treated as a thing
or animal. He had no control whatever over his fate. When, after the first shock, he
announced ‘clearly and solemnly: “not another one! It’s deadly!”’ his seemingly entirely
rational communication had no effect on those who were experimenting on him…. The
invention of electroshock is modern therapeutic totalitarianism in statu nascendi [in the
process of being born]” (THOMAS S. SZASZ [Hungarian-born U.S. psychiatrist],
“From the Slaughterhouse to the Madhouse, Psychotherapy Theory, Research and
Practice, Spring, 1971).

See Lothar Kalinowsky’s entry immediately below, Cerletti’s in 1959, Ferruccio di Cori’s in 1963, and
George Mora’s in 1963 below.

Ugo Cerletti

1938 — Cerletti had been worried that something might go wrong with the first
treatment, and it was given in secret…. When the first treatment went well, we were
allowed to attend the second treatment. We were called together for the treatment with
a trumpet!…

According to my wife — because I don’t remember it exactly — she claims that when I
came home I was very pale and said, “I saw something terrible today — I never want to
see that again!”
LOTHAR B. KALINOWSKY (German-born U.S. electroshock psychiatrist and for
many years the world’s leading authority on ECT, 1900-1992), quoted in Richard
Abrams, “Interview with Lothar Kalinowsky, M.D.,” Convulsive Therapy, vol. 4, 1988.
In 1933, Kalinowsky fled Germany for Italy where, between 1936 and 1939, he was
associated with Cerletti. After arriving in the United States in 1940, he wrote hundreds


of journal articles and co-authored several influential books on psychiatry’s physical

1940 — It seems very clear that the first documented treatment of ECT in this country
[at 27 West 55th Street, New York City] was administered by Dr. David Impastato on
January 7, 1940….