ECT in Kansas Memory

Earlier this year the Kansas Historical Foundation put some documents relating to the early history of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) on their website.

The collection was donated by the widow of Lucio Bini to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka. There is a brief description of the collection:

“Lucio Bini’s papers largely consist of incoming handwritten and typed correspondence; blueprints and related documentation for electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) equipment, as well as product details for selling equipment and records related to international patents; research notes from early experiments on animals (dogs) and from tracking early patients undergoing electroshock therapy…”

Individual items however are not labelled and, as they are mostly in Italian and often handwritten, I have probably missed a lot of important points. Lucio Bini, who died in 1963, was one of the inventors of ECT. Convulsive therapy, the practice of inducing seizures in patients in the hope of improving their symptoms, had been in use for several years but the seizures were produced with drugs. What Lucio Bini and Ugo Cerletti did in 1938 was to replace the drugs with electric shocks. Again, there was nothing new about using electricity to induce seizures – it was a method already used in animal experiments. In later years there appears to have been some disagreements between the two doctors; one of the letters in this collection is from Ugo Cerletti’s widow specifying that her husband’s papers, also donated to the Menninger Clinic, should be kept separate from those of Bini. (24-5)

From what I can tell, much of the collection is concerned with the efforts of Lucio Bini and his partner Lothar Kalinowsky (who for a token sum bought a licence for Bini’s machine in the United States and the United Kingdom) to make money from their “apparatus for applying shocks to a patient”. In one 1940 letter Kalinowsky tells Bini how he has written in energetic terms to a psychiatrist in France forbidding him to construct a new machine without giving them a percentage, but thinks they are unlikely to see any money now that Italy and France are at war. He also asks Bini for suggestions on how he can, at a forthcoming conference, best criticize the methods of Dr Grey Walter and colleagues in England who are using a different machine. There is also correspondence from this era with patent offices in the United States and United Kingdom as well as Italy, and with Siemens in Germany.

Notebooks recording the earliest treatments of patients with ECT are a reminder of how much has changed over the years. In those early days patients received shocks of about 100 volts lasting just a fraction of a second – nowadays that has increased to several seconds at a higher voltage.

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