Eighty years ago at the University of Rome La Sapienza, doctors sent 100 volts of electricity through the head of a 39-year-old man. A week earlier, he had been found by the municipal police wandering the streets and muttering words that no one could understand. “He was unemotional, living passively, like a tree that does not give fruit,” wrote Ferdinando Accornero, a young psychiatrist at the university.
Nonsensical, unknown, and unclaimed, the man was diagnosed with severe and advanced schizophrenia. “The illness had a poor prognosis,” Accornero added. “We concluded that we were dealing with a mentality that was completely unravelled, and gave little hope, even for partial recovery.”
In just a few weeks, however, this mysterious patient would be talking again, living in his home, and sleeping in a bed next to his wife. He returned to his work as an engineer in Milan.
Referred to as “E.S.”, he was the first patient to receive what would become known as electroshock or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Although his symptoms would return in a few months, by then he – and the doctors – knew they were treatable.
Today, ECT often is viewed as a barbaric, brain-damaging tool of torture with no place in modern medicine. And yet it remains the most effective treatment for a small subset of mental illnesses.