11 Morbid Historical Facts About Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, once known as "electroshock therapy") is a procedure where electricity is passed through the brain in order to cause a seizure. It is a treatment utilized in psychiatry to assist in changing the chemistry of the brain in order to reduce or reverse symptoms of some mental illnesses. Though ECT is widely considered safe and effective by patients and physicians today, electroconvulsive therapy has a disturbing past. This controversial treatment has not always been regarded as safe or ethical, and when you delve into the history of electroconvulsive therapy, you'll see why.


  • The Idea For Human Electroshock Came From Pig Slaughterhouses

    The Idea For Human Electroshock Came From Pig Slaughterhouses
    Photo: Hikaru Iwasaki / via Wikimedia Commons

    The idea to use electroshock therapy on humans first came to Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti as he watched pigs be electrocuted in a slaughterhouse. The goal was to stun the pigs in order to make it easier for their throats to be slit before being harvested for meat. Cerletti and his colleagues Lucio Bini and L.B. Kalinowski ran several experiments on animals with different devices. This helped them construct the best procedure for applying electricity directly to the brains of human subjects. Their research was afterwards put into practice by shocking people with schizophrenia.

    • The First Human Electroshock Experiment Wasn’t Authorized

      Ugo Cerletti neglected to get permission before administering electroshock therapy on his first human test subject in 1938. The subject was a schizophrenic, and upon receiving his first shock he proclaimed, “Non una seconda! Mortifere!” (“Not again! It will kill me!").

      Despite the subject’s plea, Cerletti delivered another shock of a higher voltage for a longer amount of time. When asked what happened to him after the second shock the man calmly replied, “I don’t know, perhaps I have been asleep.”

      • ECT "Experiments" Were Practiced On Captives During The Holocaust

        ECT "Experiments" Were Practiced On Captives During The Holocaust
        Photo: Fabian Börner / via Wikimedia Commons

        Hans Wilhelm König, an SS doctor at Auschwitz, regularly experimented with electroshock therapy on “schizoid” male inmates, as well as female inmates brought to Auschwitz from Birkenau, several miles away. While most male schizoid patients were favored or excluded from hard labor, it is believed that the women prisoners from Birkenau were usually gassed after being subjected to several shock experiments.

        • The Nazis Used ECT As A Method Of Exterminating The Disabled

          The Nazis Used ECT As A Method Of Exterminating The Disabled
          Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

          Another Nazi doctor notorious for utilizing electroshock therapy was Emil Gelny. He was a physician employed at the Gugging and Mauer-Öhling state euthanasia hospitals in Austria. Hospitals like these were often called “killing centers,” and Gelny is most remembered for taking the lives of hundreds of disabled patients through electroshock "euthanasia."