ECT: back to the fifties

A recent episode of the popular TV series, Call the Midwife, set in the late 1950s to early 1960s, included a story-line about Sister Cynthia, a young midwife and nun, who became depressed after being attacked when out at night, and was given ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) in a mental hospital. I have never actually watched Call the Midwife so I don’t know if the programme showed Cynthia having ECT and, if so, whether or not it was an realistic portrayal. Showing ECT being used either modified (with anaesthesia and muscle paralysing drugs) or unmodified would have been accurate as both forms were in use in British mental hospitals in the 1950s.

Call the Midwife is created by screenwriter Heidi Thomas, and her husband, Stephen McGann (one of the four acting McGann brothers), plays the role of Dr Turner. Stephen McGann’s autobiography has recently been serialised in the Daily Mail.  Mcgann described how his mother, less than a year after her marriage, gave birth to premature twins, one stillborn and the other surviving only minutes. Afterwards she became depressed.

“By that September, my mother could take no more. She went to see her doctor for a routine visit and burst into tears. Once started, the tears wouldn’t stop. Referred to a psychiatrists, Mum was told that she was severely depressed and would need to have electric shock therapy if she didn’t improve within three months.”

But before the three months were up, Clare was pregnant again, so did not undergo ECT. This was in 1957 and Clare McGann’s experience was not unusual. The novelist Catherine Cookson for example wrote about undergoing ECT in a hospital near Hereford in the 1940s after she had had a miscarriage. And TV presenter Bill Oddie’s mother Lilian, who lost two babies before Bill’s birth in 1941, spent nine years in a mental hospital and was treated with ECT. Featuring in an episode of Who do you think you are, Oddie recalled how his mother didn’t recognise him when he visited her as a child.

Clare McGann went on to have four sons and a daughter, but her marriage was not a happy one and the couple divorced, although they would later live together again. Her husband had been wounded in the D-Day landings and had been diagnosed as having an “anxiety neurosis”, something he was deeply ashamed of. Joe McGann was not alone: during World War II the largest single category of discharge from the UK and the US Armies on medical grounds was “psychiatric”. In the UK Army it was 30.5 per cent of medical discharges, ahead of musculo-skeletal, which included the majority of battle casualties, on 23 per cent.* And there were others, who although not discharged on medical grounds, were diagnosed with anxiety neurosis after the war. One such was the writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, who was a naval officer during the war. In his autobiography On my way to the club (1989) he wrote about how he made hundreds of visits to psychiatrists over a twenty-five year period before he finally became free from his symptoms and was left wondering if the time and money he had spent on psychiatrists were worth it or if he would have simply “outlived the neurosis anyway”. At one time he underwent ECT, which left him feeling “refreshed and invigorated” for about a week or ten days before his symptoms returned.

* R.H. Ahrenfeldt, 1958, Psychiatry in the British Army in the Second World War, page 279.

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