The electrical roots of Norwegian neurology

Ragnar STIEN

Department of Neurology, Ulleval Hospital, 0407 Oslo, Norway


In most of Europe, neurology and psychiatry have developed from the same origin : the theoretical and experimental function of the brain and the nervous system. The more theoretical and philosophical approach leading to psychiatry, the clinical study of symptoms and signs to neurology. In many countries the differentiation between the two is not yet completed.

In Norway neurology was developed as a clinical entity without any interference with psychiatry. The basis was one surgeons interest in a very dubious treatment tradition : electrotherapy. Christen Heiberg became professor of surgery at Rikshospitalet in 1836. In 1833 he made a great tour in Europe and at that time he probably got impressed by "Remaks electrotherapy". He was convinced that he could treat abscesses as well as tumours with electrotherapy and installed electrical leads in all bedrooms in his surgical department at Rikshospitalet in Oslo. The use of electrotherapy was so extensive that Heiberg in 1856 persuaded the Director of the hospital to create a special position for an "Electrotherapist". From 1858 to 1885 five different doctors served as "electrotherapists" at Rikshospitalet. One of them, Adam Arndtsen, wrote a very interesting book on the subject.

In 1885 the position was vacant, and the Director asked doctor Christopher Blom Leegaard to continue the work. Leegaard was 34 years old, had studied clinical neurology and neuropathology in Vienna, Leipzig, Heidelberg and Paris. In an ingenious letter to the Director dated July 1. 1885, he agrees to take over the position provided : "The electrotherapist is given the duty to lecture and train the medical students in diseases of the nervous system and electrotherapy." He even demands the location for an out-patient department of neurology. The professors of the faculty protested, but Leegaard was granted what he asked. He started lectures in neurology, even wrote his own book on electrotherapy (Elektrotherapi, Kristiania 1887). In 1893 he was made assistant professor of neurology, and in 1895 professor of neurology. In the same year the still existing department of neurology at Rikshospitalet was founded.

Electrotherapy very quickly disappeared as the basis for clinical neurology, but we have to admit that the root of modern Norwegian neuro-biology is electrotherapy - a therapeutical tradition not far from alternative medical therapeutic methods like acupuncture and healing. Psychiatry or psychological models were never any part of the development of Norwegian neurology. In the late 1920ies neurology and psychiatry got into a fight over the classification of their newly recognised specialities. The psychiatrists wanted to use "specialist of neuro-psychiatry". The neurologists were opposed to this nomenclature, and in 1930 the case was settled. The new formal specialities were called "psychiatry" and "neurology".


Panel 3B   (Evolution and Dissolution)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999