Giovanni Aldini (1803) and the electrical cure for "melancholic madness"

Sherry Ann BEAUDREAU and Stanley FINGER
Department of Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834), nephew of Luigi Galvani, worked with his uncle and then on his own to extend some of his uncle’s findings on electrically-induced muscle contractions in frogs and other animals. In the 1790s he conducted electrical experiments on the bodies of recently executed humans. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that Aldini began to use electricity to help hospitalized mental patients in 1801.

His first patients were classified as "melancholics," although his writings suggest some might have had schizophrenia. Aldini described his initial findings, which included some successes and some failures, in a book published in 1803.

In this presentation, we shall examine what Aldini wrote about these early hospitalized cases and then ask where he came up the idea of using electroshock therapy to treat mental illness. Did it come from Benjamin Franklin and Jan Ingenhousz, who, on the basis of personal mishaps that resulted in a loss of consciousness, suggested giving strong shocks to the heads of melancholic patients in the 1780s? And was Aldini the first person to document the benefits of strong electrical shocks to the head in cases of mental illness?

Most histories of electroshock therapy begin with Ugo Cerletti, who worked in Italy approximately 130 years after Aldini published his initial findings on therapeutic shocks to the head. Cerletti seemed to have no knowledge of what Aldini had done, and he based his work on a mistaken assumption about epileptic convulsions and schizophrenia. By going back to Franklin, Ingenhousz, and Aldini, we hope to show that the concept and application of strong electrical shocks to the head as a method of treating mental illness was discussed and put into action at least two centuries ago.

Session X -- Poster Session 2
Tuesday, 29 June 2004, 8:45 - 9:25 am

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada