The first patient was a 29-year-old woman of Italian descent suffering from severe
schizophrenia. The apparatus used by Dr. Impastato was made in Italy and brought to
the United States in 1939 by Dr. Renato Almansi, who had been associated with Dr. Ugo
Cerletti in Rome.
ZIGMOND M. LEBENSOHN (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), “The History of
Electroconvulsive Therapy in the United States and Its Place in American Psychiatry: A
Personal Memoir,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, May-June 1999.
1940 — These sundry procedures produce “beneficial” results by reducing the patient’s
capacity for being human. The philosophy is something to the effect that it is better to be
a contented imbecile than a schizophrenic.
HARRY STACK SULLIVAN (U.S. psychiatrist), referring to lobotomy and shock
treatment (in his phrase, psychiatry’s “decortication treatments”), “Conceptions of
Modern Psychiatry,” Psychiatry, February 1940.
1941 — In a 1941 U.S. Public Health Service survey, 42 percent of [305 public and
private] institutions surveyed had electroshock machines just three years after the first
human electroshock trial.
JOEL BRASLOW (U.S. psychiatrist), slightly modified, Mental Ills and Bodily Cures:
Psychiatric Treatment in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, ch. 5, 1997.
1941 — What then of… our vitamin capsules, our electric therapies, our ultra-violet
lamps, our shortwave treatments and our shock therapy — in particular our shock
therapy, whether it be insulin or metrazol or electric! Do we use these as empirically as
our predecessors did their leeches and their bleedings?… I ask the question, are we, in
the light of others who come after us, going to be accused of being users of stupid,
bizarre or crude methods? Will they think us no better than quacks? Will they read our
shock therapy methods with horror and say, “Why, they should have used baseball bats
— it would have been just as productive of results”?
C. C. BURLINGAME (psychiatrist), 1941, quoted in David Herman and Jim Green,
“What Treatment?” Madness: A Study Guide, 1991.
1941 — All of the above-mentioned methods [i.e., various forms of shock and drug
treatments] are damaging to the brain, but for the most part, the damage is either slight
or temporary. The apparent paradox develops, however, that the greater the damage,
the more likely the remission of psychotic symptoms….
It has been said that if we don’t think correctly, it is because we haven’t “brains
enough.” Maybe it will be shown that a mentally ill patient can think more clearly and
more constructively with less brain in actual operation.
WALTER FREEMAN (U.S. neurologist and psychosurgeon who, in 1936, introduced
lobotomy in the United States and became its leading proponent, 1895-1972), “Editorial
Comment: Brain-Damaging Therapeutics,” Diseases of the Nervous System (“A
Practical Journal of Psychiatry and Neurology”), March 1941. In 1935, Portuguese
neurologist and neurosurgeon Egas Moniz introduced psychosurgery, the first method
of which was called leucotomy or leukotomy (in Europe) and lobotomy (in the U.S.). In
1949, Moniz won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discovery of the
therapeutic value of prefrontal leucotomy in certain psychoses.”
See Abraham Myerson’s entry in 1942 below.
1942 — Case 1. M.C. Philadelphia State Hospital. Reg. No. 51103. Paranoid dementia
praecox in a woman of 45. Electrical convulsion treatments, 62 [in 16 of which no
convulsion was produced], over a period of 5½ months. Numerous punctate
hemorrhages in the cerebral cortex, medulla, cerebellum and basal ganglia. Areas of
perivascular edema and necrosis….
Comment. The foregoing case is the first reported instance, so far as we know, of
hemorrhages in the brain attributable to electrical convulsion treatment….
The importance of the case lies in that it offers a clear demonstration of the fact that
electrical convulsion treatment is followed at times by structural damage of the brain.
BERNARD J. ALPERS and JOSEPH HUGHES (U.S. neurologists), “The Brain
Changes in Electrically Induced Convulsions in the Human,” Journal of
Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, April 1942.
See Peter Sterling’s entry in 2001 below.
1942 — I do not believe shock therapy offers us any lasting benefit. It certainly is not
specific. It does not in any way help the patient to understand his own problems or to
change his attitude towards his problems. It certainly in no way assists the psychiatrist
in understanding the patient, his problems or his makeup…. To put it bluntly, I do not
believe that we can scramble brains and expect to have anything left but scrambled
ANONYMOUS (psychiatrist), quoted in Lawrence Kolb and Victor H. Vogel, “The Use
of Shock Therapy in 305 Mental Hospitals,” American Journal of Psychiatry, July 1942.
1942 — Bini in 1942 suggested the repetition of ECT many times a day for certain
patients, naming the method “annihilation.”
UGO CERLETTI (Italian electroshock psychiatrist), “Old and New Information about
Electroshock,” American Journal of Psychiatry, August 1950.
See Alfred Gallinek’s entry in 1952 and Robert Pirsig’s in 1974 below.
1942 — A generalized convulsion leaves a human being in a state in which all that is
called personality has been extinguished.
HANS LÖWENBACH (German-born U.S. electroshock psychiatrist) and EDWARD
J. STAINBROOK (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), opening sentence, “Observations on
Mental Patients after Electro-shock,” American Journal of Psychiatry, May 1942.
1942 — I believe there have to be organic changes or organic disturbances in the
physiology of the brain for the cure [with electric convulsive therapy] to take place. I
think the disturbance in memory is probably an integral part of the recovery process. I
think it may be true that these people have for the time being at any rate more
intelligence than they can handle and that the reduction of intelligence is an important
factor in the curative process. I say this without cynicism. The fact is that some of the
very best cures that one gets are in those individuals whom one reduces almost to
ABRAHAM MYERSON (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), discussion following
Franklin G. Ebaugh et al., “Fatalities Following Electric Convulsive Therapy: A Report of
2 Cases with Autopsy Findings,” Transactions of the American Neurological
Association, June 1942.
See Walter Freeman’s entry in 1941 above.
1942 — Since October 1940 my associates and I [at Trenton State Hospital, New Jersey]
have employed electric shock therapy in 1,133 cases, in 448 of which electric shock was
combined with insulin…. Chronic Psychoses: By far the largest number of patients to
receive electric shock therapy alone were the dirty, denuded, deteriorated and disturbed
schizophrenic patients. These patients made a remarkable change in their institutional
adjustment, and the majority improved to the point of remaining clothed, going to the
cafeteria and working in occupational therapy groups in the wards. We found, however,
that if the treatments were discontinued, the patients soon returned to their previous
level; therefore we maintain these patients on a regimen of one or two treatments a
week for an indefinite period.
JOHN H. TAYLOR JR. (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), remarks at a symposium, 13
November 1942, quoted in Philadelphia Psychiatric Society, “Symposium:
Complications of and Contraindications to Electric Shock Therapy,” Archives of
Neurology and Psychiatry, May 1943.
1943 — In the fall of 1942 I brought an electric shock apparatus overseas as part of
hospital equipment. The [military] hospital where I was stationed rapidly filled with
psychotic patients. The shipmasters refused to accept disturbed patients for return to
the States…. In late February or early March of 1943, after much deliberation, I began
the use of electric shock treatment, which was contrary to Army regulations. It was
amazing to see how rapidly the acute schizophrenic states underwent remissions.
BENJAMIN BOSHES (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), discussion following Matthew
T. Moore, “Electrocerebral Shock Therapy: A Reconsideration of Former
Contraindications,” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, June 1947.
1943 — Perhaps we are doing the right thing but in a very crude way just as if one were
trying to right a watch with a hammer.
HAROLD E. HIMWICH (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), “Electroshock: A Round
Table Discussion,” American Journal of Psychiatry, November 1943.
1943 — The mechanism of improvement and recovery [with electric shock] seems to be
to knock out the brain and reduce the higher activities, to impair the memory, and thus
the newer acquisition of the mind, namely, the pathological state, is forgotten.
ABRAHAM MYERSON (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), “Borderline Cases Treated by
Electric Shock,” American Journal of Psychiatry, November 1943.
1943 — A subconvulsive shock, especially when the current passes through the head, is a
very disagreeable and painful experience. Such shocks cause fear and terror. Many
patients believe that they are about to be electrocuted. A shock which ends in
instantaneous unconsciousness with convulsions is not felt, for the speed of the current
far surpasses the speed of the action currents of the nervous system and does not allow
the patient time to think. After [electroconvulsive] treatment there is always a period of
We, therefore, treated 10 patients with 3 subconvulsive shocks daily for a period of
ten days. All of them became more and more terrified as these treatments were
continued from day to day. Some developed more intense psychoses, others remained as
psychotic as in the beginning. They had to be dragged into the treatment room. None of
them improved or recovered. These same patients were then given the regular
In the beginning the patients were told that they were being taken into a room for the
purpose of studying their brain waves. They were then shocked into unconsciousness.
None of them remembered anything about the procedure. When they recovered from
their confusion, many demanded to be informed as to just what had been done with
them. Those who recovered and developed insight stated that all memory of the first
weeks spent in the hospital was gone. In some this retrograde amnesia extended back
for several months before they entered the institution.
CLARENCE A. NEYMAN, V. G. URSE (U.S. electroshock psychiatrists) et al.,
“Electric Shock Therapy in the Treatment of Schizophrenia, Manic Depressive Psychoses
and Chronic Alcoholism,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (“the world’s oldest
independent scientific monthly in the field of human behavior”), December 1943.
1944 — [Film actor Frances Farmer arrived at Western Washington State Hospital at
Fort Steilacoom on March 14, 1944.] She was taken from the padded van and led to the
main receiving area. The straitjacket was removed and she was stripped. Standing nude
before a large crowd of patients and orderlies that had assembled to see her, she was
then numbered and fingerprinted….
Early the next morning, she was taken to another, smaller room, where she was to
begin immediately an extensive program of ECT….
Frances had a reputation for being the most angry, rebellious inmate in the asylum.
She refused to cooperate with the psychiatrists. She refused to admit she had a mental
problem. She screamed that she was being unjustly incarcerated and demanded to be
released. The stubborn independence and integrity that had made her a successful artist
were here deemed “antisocial” behavior and she was treated for it with massive weekly
doses of electroshock. When even this failed to get a response, she was given
hydrotherapy [forced baths], a primitive form of shock treatment….
Months of such treatment went by and Frances’ resistance gradually melted. She
became, she would write some time later, “like a bowl of jelly, agreeable and pliable.”
She seemed to become almost another person. (“I’m sorry,” she supposedly told the
doctors. “I was a rude and disrespectful. I was very, very sick.”) She flattered the nurses
and orderlies. She admitted the error in her thinking. She became a model patient. The
doctors immediately announced that she was completely cured. [She was then
discharged from the hospital.]
WILLIAM ARNOLD, Shadowland, ch. 30, 1978. During the year before her time at
Western Washington State Hospital, Farmer was subjected to insulin coma treatment at
a sanitarium in La Crescenta, California. After WWSH, she was, for several years, in and
out of mental hospitals, where she was drugged and electroshocked repeatedly. Finally,
in 1948, she was returned to WWSH where it is generally believed Walter Freeman
lobotomized her. She was never institutionalized again, but the spark was gone. She died
of cancer in 1970 at the age of 56.
See Gerald Clarke’s entry on Judy Garland in 1949, Lawrence Olivier’s on Vivien Leigh in 1953, and Gene
Tierney’s in 1955 below.
1944 — Even though the impairment of memory for the most part affects trivialities and
is one to which an otherwise well patient can adjust, it necessarily imposes a mental
strain. It also contra-indicates electro-therapy in those, for example teachers and
transport workers, in whom an inability to remember names of persons and places may
seriously impair working capacity. Finally, it implies permanent, or semi-permanent,
damage to the brain which… may later have untoward consequences.
M. B. BRODY (British psychiatrist), closing sentences, “Prolonged Memory Defects
Following Electro-Therapy,” Journal of Mental Science, July 1944. The article presented
the case notes of 5 patients who had undergone ECT at Runwell Hospital, Essex,
England, where Brody was the Senior Resident Physician. In the opening paragraph, he
wrote that to his knowledge his was only the second article which stated that
“impairment of memory occurring during or after electro-therapy has any serious
significance,” adding that his case notes reveal “memory defects lasting a year or more.”
1944 — I was six years old [in 1944]. My mother had been locked up in a mental hospital
just before I was born, and I was a ward of the state. A psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital
in New York, Dr. Lauretta Bender, had just begun her infamous series of experiments
with shock treatment on children, and she needed more subjects. So I was diagnosed as
a “childhood schizophrenic,” torn away from my foster parents, and given 20 shock
I was dragged down the hallway crying, a handkerchief stuffed in my mouth so I
wouldn’t bite off my tongue. And I woke [after the shock treatment] not knowing where
I was or who I was, but feeling as if I had undergone the experience of death.
After four months of this. I was returned to my foster home. Shock treatment had
changed me from a shy little boy who liked to sit in a corner and read to a terrified child
who would only cling to his foster mother and cry. I couldn’t remember my teachers. I
couldn’t remember the little boy I was told had been my best friend. I couldn’t even find
my way around my own neighborhood. The social worker who visited every month told
my foster parents that my memory loss was a symptom of my mental illness.
A few months later, I was shipped to a state hospital to spend the next 10 years of my
Was this [referring to the electroshock] the work of some isolated sadist, some mad
scientist practicing in a closet? No, the psychiatrist who did this to me and several
hundred other children is still a leader in her field, with many articles published in
prestigious psychiatric journals; she still draws a salary from the New York State
Department of Mental Hygiene. And not one voice was ever raised within the entire
psychiatric profession to protest what she had done.
TED CHABASINSKI (U.S. electroshock survivor and attorney), “Electroshock:
Medical Cure or Physical Torture?: Ex-patient Calls It ‘Destructive,’” Daily Californian
(Berkeley), 26 October 1982.
See Lauretta Bender’s entry in 1947 and Chabasinski’s in 1982 below.
1944 — The evidence assembled from the various fields of investigation in regard to
shock therapy points definitely to damage to the brain. Perhaps the majority of authors
tend [sic] to minimize the significance of this and attempt to find some explanation
more satisfying to their consciences. There is still a tendency to consider the brain as the
“temple of the mind,” the “seat of the soul,” and the “greatest gift of God,” and to decry
any suggestion that such a holy structure is being tampered with. The shackles of
medieval thought are difficult to strike off.
WALTER FREEMAN and JAMES W. WATTS (U.S. psychosurgeons),
“Physiological Psychology,” Annual Review of Physiology, 1944.
1944? — A [concentration-camp] prisoner who worked on a Birkenau hospital block
later testified that “Dr. [Hans Wilhelm] König did electroshock experiments on women,”
and added, “These women later talked about their treatment. I believe Dr. König carried
out the electroshock experiments on sick women twice a week and that the women were
In other words, the electroshock treatments could be seen as a prelude to the gas
chamber, and on the basis of such testimony and other investigations the International
Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva (in association with the International Tracing
Service in Arolsen in West Germany) placed these “electroshock experiments” on the list
of “pseudo-medical experiments” for which victims could be compensated.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON (U.S. psychiatrist), The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide, ch. 15, 1985. In researching his book, Lifton conducted
extensive interviews with concentration-camp doctors and psychiatrists.
1944 — During the spring of 1944, the SS officer in charge of the prison hospital [at
Auschwitz] told me and one other male nurse [inmate] to report for a special
assignment. We were told to be in front of the hospital compound barracks to take
inmates from a truck to the barracks and return them later to the truck.
When the truck arrived, I found six to eight women in various states of despair….
We took the women into the barrack where a separate room had been fixed up. A
number of SS officers were in the room. Since I went back and forth into the room
several times, I saw the faces of the officers and recognized Dr. [Josef] Mengele.
After an hour, we were summoned back to remove the women. In the room where the
“medical services” were performed, one woman was still connected to an electrical
machine, presumably for electric-shock experimentation. We had been instructed to
have a stretcher ready in order to carry the women out. We found two of them dead….
Two obviously were in a coma; the others were breathing hard and irregularly. None was
conscious. I noticed that the teeth of those still alive were clenched and that wads of
paper were placed in their mouths.
ERNEST W. MICHEL (chairman of a world gathering of Jewish Holocaust survivors
in Jerusalem in 1981), “I Saw Him in Action” (op-ed column), New York Times, 6 March
1985. The column was adapted from Michel’s testimony at a Congressional hearing.
Mengele was the war’s most infamous Nazi doctor. He conducted numerous medical
experiments on Auschwitz inmates, many of them twins. He disappeared after the war.
1945 — [Shock] treatment is not without risks. A number of unexplained deaths have
occurred, large numbers of patients with organic cardiovascular hypertensive disease
have been successfully treated, yet some have died from coronary disease shortly after a
treatment…. I have had a number of patients die suddenly from cardiovascular
accidents, within a few weeks after full recovery from depressive psychoses, and am not
fully convinced that the therapy may not have hastened their deaths.
A. E. BENNETT (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), “An Evaluation of the Shock
Therapies,” Diseases of the Nervous System, January 1945.
1945 — But what is shock? Certainly it is something that afflicts the organism physically
as well as mentally. The author of this book has no personal experience with shock
treatment. He has, however, personal experience in analyzing doctors who apply shock
treatment. The (conscious or unconscious) attitude of the doctors toward the treatment
was regularly that of “killing and bringing alive again.”… “Killing the sick person and
creating the patient anew as a healthy person” is an ancient form of magical treatment.
OTTO FENICHEL (German-born U.S. psychoanalyst), The Psychoanalytic Theory of
Neurosis, p. 508, 1945.
1945 — Smith, Hastings and Hughes reported only 10% improvement in the
schizophrenics they treated [with electroshock therapy], while Kalinowsky showed
improvement in 70% of his patients so diagnosed. The latter emphasized the importance
of adequate treatment stating, “Discontinuation of treatment after the usually early
clinical improvement leads almost invariably to relapse and is the most important
reason for failure of this method in the treatment of schizophrenia.
EDWARD F. KERMAN (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), “Electroshock Therapy: With
Special Reference to Relapses and an Effort to prevent them,” Journal of Nervous and
Mental Disease, September 1945.
1945 — Of the 300 patients treated [with electroshock therapy], 201, or 67% are now out
of the hospital, either paroled or discharged…. Eighty-eight, or 29% are still in the
hospital, either in a state similar to that shown before treatment, or exhibiting various
degrees of partial improvement…. Five patients are dead; one committed suicide
following relapse from her former improved state; one developed tuberculosis several
months after treatment and died from the tuberculous process; one stopped breathing
with the application of the first shock and could not be resuscitated (autopsy was
refused); one died suddenly three weeks after the last shock after a slight exertion; and
one died 11 days after her last electric shock, during the course of ambulatory insulin
therapy. Autopsies done on the last 2 patients showed some equivocal findings…. One is
more impressed with the cerebral than the pulmonary factor in evaluating the cause of
EDWARD F. KERMAN, “Electroshock Therapy: With Special Reference to Relapses
and an Effort to Prevent Them,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, September
1945 — In some hospitals, the shock machine is carried about the various wards and
more or less brought to the patient; but, in this institution [Rochester State Hospital,
New York] it has been found more convenient to bring the patient to the shock machine.
Thus a series of rooms called the shock clinic was established…. While one patient is
being treated in the shock room, another is being adjusted on the second table and can
then be wheeled in as soon as the first patient leaves the room. Thus a continuous
stream of patients is maintained and by this method 30 patients can be treated in about
one and one-half hours. Immediately after the treatment, each patient is placed in bed
and a wide canvas strap is tied across his chest and abdomen. Men and women are
treated the same day but in different groups….
The persistence of confusion varies considerably from case to case and is largely
dependent on the treatment intervals. Formerly two treatments weekly were
considerable advisable, but for some time all patients at [RSH] have been treated three
times weekly. This regime has to some extent increased and maintained the confusion,
which is evident particularly in memory loss for recent events. Patients seem to be more
amused than alarmed by this circumstance.
WELLINGTON W. REYNOLDS (U.S. electroshock psychiatrist), “Electric Shock
Treatment: Observations on 350 Cases,” Psychiatric Quarterly, vol. 19, 1945.
1939-1945 — Terror stalked the halls of the euthanasia hospitals not only because
patients feared being selected for killing at any time or because some of the staff beat
and maltreated them but also because some medical procedures imposed unusual pain.
At the Gugging and Mauer-Öhling Austrian state hospitals, physician Emil Gelny, who
was not a psychiatrist, employed a machine designed to give electroshock treatments
and thus inflict torture. Electroconvulsive therapy, common in psychiatric hospitals
during that period, was an even more painful procedure before the postwar introduction
of anesthesia and muscle relaxants. Gelny used these machines, with minor
adjustments, to kill patients. After two trial executions by Erwin Jekelius at the Am
Steinhof hospital in Vienna, Gelny installed these machines at Gugging and Mauer-
Öhling and used them to kill hundreds of handicapped patients.
HENRY FRIEDLANDER (German-born U.S. professor of history), The Origins of
Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, ch. 9, 1995.
1946 — Anyone who has gone through the electric shock… never again rises out of its
darkness and his life has been lowered a notch.
ANTONIN ARTAUD (French electroshock survivor, actor, and playwright), “Insanity
and Black Magic,” 1946, Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, 1973.
Follow-up: “Gaston Ferdière, head doctor at the Rodez Asylum, told me he was there to
reform my poetry” (Artaud, “Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society,” 1947, Antonin
Artaud Anthology, ed. Jack Hirschman, 1965). Later, Ferdière wrote about ECT’s effects
on Artaud and their significance: “[Artaud] asked the doctors, the nurses: ‘What am I
doing here? Where am I? Who am I?’ That is absolutely normal, and this kind of sub-
anxiety on waking is, on the psychopathological level, even a desirable phenomenon as it
obliges the patient, who has been reduced to nothingness, who has been totally
obliterated, to build himself up again, and to follow the process of reconstruction —
which is precisely what we are aiming at” (GASTON FERDIÈRE [French electroshock
psychiatrist], quoted in Charles Marowitz, “Artaud at Rodez,” Evergreen, April 1968).
While at Rodez in 1943(?), Artaud wrote in a “Letter to the Medical Directors of Lunatic
Asylums,” “Asylums, far from being asylums, are fearful jails, where the inmates
provide a source of free and useful manpower and where brutality is the rule, all of
which you tolerate. A mental asylum, under cover of science and justice, is comparable
to a barracks, a prison, or a slave colony…. Try and remember that tomorrow morning
during your rounds, when, without knowing their language, you attempt to converse
with these people over whom, you must admit, you have only one advantage, namely
Antonin Artaud, photographed a week before
his death in 1948 at the age of 52
1946 — I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was a “smart-mouth” kid who skipped
school, had “bad” surfing friends, and stayed out some nights, even hitch-hiking around.