Electroconvulsive Therapy: Controversial, even at Conception

“In fact, by the early 1950s, electroconvulsive therapy was one of the most commonly used treatments for almost all mental illnesses.”

An electroconvulsive therapy machine used during the 1960s and 70s.
A typical 1960s electroconvulsive therapy machine. (000003376 a-n, Museum of Health Care)

On March 9, 2020, Justice Minister David Lametti introduced Bill C-8, which would amend Canada’s Criminal Code to ban Conversion Therapy, as well as allow Canadian Courts to seize or have removed advertisements for Conversion Therapy. The bill also would outlaw minors being sent to a country outside of Canada to receive conversion therapy. Bill C-8 marks the Liberal Government fulfilling their promise to end the practice within Canada, as well as the most progressive stance on conversion therapy by any nation. With this ban being proposed in the House of Commons, it is important to understand the history of Conversion Therapy, as well as how electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has played a key role in the practice.

Early Development and Popularity

Conversion therapy first began in 1899, when German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed he had turned a gay man straight through hypnosis. The late 1800s saw the invention of the concept of the heterosexual and as a result anything outside of relationships between people of the opposite sex was seen as unnatural. However, it wouldn’t be until the 1950s when American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. It was under this thinking that queer individuals were just sick people who needed to receive treatment for their illness and that they could be cured and go off and live heterosexual lives. In the 20th century many gay people were involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities by their families to receive treatment such as ECT.

Electroconvulsive therapy was first performed in 1938 by Ugo Cerletti and Lucino Bini at the University of Rome. After doing a series of tests on dogs, throughout 1937, the men were finally able to perform the first clinical trial on humans. The treatment was a response to previous treatments in which insulin or other chemicals were used to induce epileptic seizures, to combat schizophrenia. Many medical professionals working on psychiatric floors reported patients experiencing a feeling of terror between the time the chemicals were given to the time the seizure began. Cerletti and Bini developed ECT in part to eliminate the fear associated with seizure induced treatments.

During the interwar period, the field of psychiatry began to embrace a wide range of therapies such as lobotomies, medications such as Benzedrine Sulfate, and most importantly electroconvulsive therapy. As a result of this, ECT became rapidly hailed as a revolutionary treatment for the mentally ill. In the beginning ECT was used to treat mostly schizophrenia, but soon would be used to treat a wide variety of mental illnesses. Within years of its development, ECT also became a common treatment for depression and what today would be understood as bi-polar disorder. In fact, by the early 1950s, ECT was one of the most commonly used treatments for almost all mental illnesses. For example, one third of the 60,000 hospitalized patients in England and Wales would receive ECT.

Conversion Therapy Methods

ECT was used on mostly gay men under the thinking that similar practices as Pavlov’s experiments on dogs could turn people straight. Pavlov’s experiments essentially said that people could be taught desired behaviours through positive reinforcement and over time they would perform the behaviour without the reinforcement. In a company catalogue for an electric shock machine the company explained the devices role in conversion therapy. Farrall Instrument Company claimed that “Aversive conditioning has proven an effective aid in the treatment of child molesters, transvestites, exhibitionists, alcoholics, shoplifters, and other people with similar problems. Stimulus slides are shown to the patient intermixed with neutral slides. Shock is delivered with stimulus scenes but not with neutral scenes. In reinforcing heterosexual preference in latent male homosexuals, male slides give a shock while the stimulus relief slides of females do not give shock. The patient is given a “slide change” hand button which enables him to escape or avoid a shock by rejecting a shock cue scene.” This statement alone highlights the disdain that most of society had for Queer folk, as they were equated with sexual predators and criminals.

Modern Usage

Today, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is still used to treat mental illnesses, however, much less frequently and freely than it was in the Cold War years. Despite the therapy’s longstanding negative connection with conversion therapy, many people—like the late Carrie Fisher—cite ECT as the thing that dramatically changed their mental health. At CAMH, in Toronto, Ontario, “each weekday 20 to 25 people receive ECT as part of their acute or ongoing treatment.” In modern medicine, ECT is most commonly used to treat people living with depression and schizophrenia in cases where medication regiments have not helped, as somewhat of a “one more thing to try” use-case. While ECT has the chance to help people escape the clutches of depression, it is incredibly important to ensure this treatment is being given in a humane and consensual manner, unlike the practices of conversion therapy.

A young girl's oil painting depicting electroshock therapy from her perspective, gifted to her doctor.
A child’s oil painting depicting electroshock therapy from 1965. (000026001, Museum of Health Care)

About the Authour

Kaelynn Anderson

(HIST-212 Intern, 2020)

Kaelynn Anderson recently graduated from Queen’s University with a Major in History and Minor in Global Development Studies. Kaelynn spent a portion of her final semester with the Museum of Health Care as a Queen’s HIST-212 Intern, focusing on collections and curatorial-based projects (including trade card inventories, walking tour script research, and blog posts like the one above).


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