Psychiatric Horrors in History pt. 1

This review of the History of Psychiatry is indebted to Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America and Peter Breggin’s writings.
We begin our overview of the history of psychiatry with one of its founders—Benjamin Rush. Rush can arguably be considered the “Father” of Psychiatry. His face is even on the seal of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Rush was also a famous statesmen, signer of the declaration of Independence, and friend of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In his care for the insane he mixed humane treatment with that which by all estimates came to be regarded as torture. He once stated that “Terror acts powerfully on the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness” (Whitaker, 3). Ironically, he believed in treating the mentally ill with respect in comfortable surroundings, but he also believed in using the latest techniques that were being employed by the Physicians in Europe.
The medical advancements in Europe that Rush wanted to employ included, bleeding and emetics—vomiting inducing agents. They also included the ‘spinning chair’, dunking in water, and an immobilizing device coined ‘the tranquilizer chair’(Whitaker 7; Breggin, “Toxic 108). These were designed to weaken the raving mad and make them more docile and submissive. Wounds were sometimes created on the bodies of the mentally ill and caustic substances would be rubbed on them to induce pain. The pain was thought to be a beneficial distraction. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s various forms of water therapy were practiced. These included spraying the patient with streams of water, dunking them in cold water baths, and even “drowning therapy” which brought back victims from the verge of death in an attempt to renew their sanity (Whitaker 11-12). As a result of Rush’s belief that mental illness was caused by an abnormality in the blood flow to the brain he would bleed his patients almost to the point of death (Breggin “Toxic” 108-109). He believed that up to four fifths of the body’s blood supply should be removed (Whitaker 14). Rush was also a general Physician, and while modern medicine has moved away from his unscientific treatments (he was the Doctor who bled George Washington to death for a sore throat), Psychiatry has carried on his tradition of experimental mistreatment.
In the 1890’s to the early twentieth century gynecological surgeries were thought to have benefits on the insane. Hysterectomies and oopherectomies (removal of the ovaries) were performed in mental institutions and reported to have therapeutic effects on patients (78-79). Injecting hormones from sheep glands was also used because insanity was thought to be caused by abnormal hormones in corresponding human glands (79). After recovering from the feverish illness caused by the injections the patients were reported to have improved. Other directors of Mental Hospitals injected toxic chemicals into the spinal fluid of patients (80). Henry Cotton performed surgery on the patients at his mental hospital in Trenton, NJ. He believed that bacteria were involved in causing insanity. This idea led him to extract his patient’s teeth, but he eventually moved on to the colon, appendix, gall bladder and other various organs. He confidently trumpeted his success rates, but was later found to be falsifying his results (80-81). Other doctors attempted drug induced sleep for up to days at a time. Fever therapy was also tried by inducing higher temperatures physically and with injectable substances. This was followed elsewhere by cooling and refrigeration therapy which lowered the temperatures of patients to hypothermic states (83-84).
In the 1930’s insulin coma therapy was championed as a revolutionary breakthrough. Insulin lowers the blood sugar which is necessary for normal body processes including brain functioning. With the injection of excessive insulin, the blood sugar drops and coma eventually ensues. This is normally a life threatening medical emergency to be avoided at all costs. However when it comes to the mentally ill, apparently the most dangerous experiments are fair game. Reader’s Digest, Time and Harper’s magazines all heralded it as an effective advancement in therapy (86). The technique was soon shown to cause significant brain damage, as could be expected, and yet it spawned other therapies which also destroyed brain cells like replacing needed oxygen with nitrogen (89-90).
Don’t forget, by this time, antibiotics and other advancements in modern medicine were providing wonderful benefits for people. Psychiatry was eagerly searching for its scientific breakthroughs. Over and over again the latest treatment would be loudly proclaimed to be a revolutionary finding, and then with the passage of time, sometimes a few years, at other times decades, that treatment would be discredited and outdated. Isn’t it shocking and amazing that Psychiatry did not recognize and learn from this horrid history of failed treatments? On the contrary, as we shall see, the profession not only failed to learn from such harmful practices, but recklessly marched on to even more barbaric treatments.