Benjamin Franklin and the discovery of shock-induced amnesia

Stanley FINGER and Frank ZAROMB
Department of Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Shock-induced amnesia has received considerable attention since Cerletti popularized electroconvulsive shock therapy in the 1930s. Yet often overlooked is the fact that in 1750 Benjamin Franklin recognized, albeit at first by accident, that passing electricity through the head could affect memory for that experience and what might have happened just prior to it. Franklin described his observations on himself and others in several letters, one of which was published in his lifetime. In these letters he wrote that he did not even realize what had happened to him until he discovered that his once full Leyden jars had discharged and was told about the electricity that coursed through his head and body by others.

What Franklin experienced was confirmed by one of his closest physician-correspondents, Jan Ingenhousz, who exchanged information on his own shock-induced retrograde amnesia with him. During the 1780s, these two giants of the Enlightenment agreed that shocks to the head might have clinical utility, and both called, for the first time, for actual trials with “mad” patients. Successful clinical trials with subconvulsive shocks followed, as did new interest in electrical shock-induced amnesia, which was thought by many to be a new phenomenon. Cerletti and his followers had no idea of what had transpired in the eighteenth century when ECT came of age and the retrograde amnesia was tied to the cure.

Session II
Tuesday, 5 July 2005, 11.00 - 11.30 am

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005