All StayOnTop Today In History sidebar items from the past are archived here, so this page keeps growing into an ever longer list of small historical facts of interest. The list is in chronological order: from the oldest to the most recent event.
If you want to find a specific name or word here, use your browser’s in-page search: hit the Ctrl-F key combination and type your search word in the search box.
September 28, 551 BC – Assumed birth date of Chinese philosopher Kǒng Qiū, better known as Confucius (Latin version of “Master Kong”).
He developed a life philosophy strongly based on social, ethical behavior and virtues; his ideas still are the base of Confucianism today.
Confucius was the first to formulate the Golden Rule of Reciprocity, with his saying “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”.
September 22, 129 – Traditionally supposed, but not confirmable birth date of the famous Roman physician Claudius Galenus (Galen).
His medical writings, based in part on dissecting apes and pigs, would set the medical standard for over a thousand years, until about 1600 new research led to more accurate insights.
Despite his errors (especially his incorrect view of blood circulation) Galen made many correct observations, for example about all muscle movements being controlled by the brain.
Galen popularized the Hippocratic theory of “bodily humors” that discerned four basic types of mood and temperament, depending from the balance of the four basic fluids in the body:
(1) the sanguine type (blood prevailing), (2) the phlegmatic type (phlegm prevailing); (3) the choleric type (yellow bile prevailing); and (4) the melancholic type (black bile prevailing).
Galen connected these temperamental types to various personality traits, preferences and capabilities. For example, according to him creativity was most commonly found in melancholic people.
February 14, 269 – According to tradition, on this day the Christian priest Valentinus was martyred on the Via Flaminia, near Rome. In 496, he was officially recognized as a saint.
The tale has it that he was killed because he performed clandestine Christian marriages for soldiers (who were forbidden to marry because unmarried men were thought to be better soldiers).
A skull alleged to be St. Valentine’s (photo) is still displayed today as a relic in the church of Saint Mary in Cosmedin in Rome.
After the Middle Ages, Valentine gradually came to be seen as the patron of romantic love.
May 18, 1048 – Birth date of the famous Persian genius (mathematician, astronomer, mystical philosopher, poet) Omar Khayyám.
Here is a quatrain from his Rubáiyát, as translated in 1988 by Karim Emami:
It’s early dawn, my love, open your eyes and arise,
Gently imbibing and playing the lyre;
For those who are here will not tarry long,
And those who are gone will not return.
September 26, 1181 – Assumed birth date of Francis of Assisi, the Catholic saint (and patron of the animals) who founded the Franciscan Order.
After a carefree youth, he devoted himself to a missionary life, with mystical visions but above all preaching peacefulness and an extreme, strict ideal of poverty.
Modern explanations of his hectic life suggest Francis may have been suffering from (and driven by) bipolar disorder: trying to make sense of his depressed and manic episodes, within the religious context of the Middle Ages.
June 26, 1248 – Legend has it that on this day, a malicious rat-catcher (the “pied piper”) with his magical flute lured all 130 children of the German town of Hameln away to their death, leaving behind only three (a blind, a lame and a deaf child) who were unable to follow him.
Many historians speculate that some real event must have originated this tale, but they differ greatly about what actually might have happened. Theories include a deadly pest outbreak, a children’s crusade, flight or emigration.
Anyway, since the 13th century this fearful (and warning) horror story of the “Pied Piper of Hameln” would remain a strong part of popular lore.
February 16, 1312 – In the English town of York, judge John de Insula and his colleagues issue a pardon for one Richard Sharpe of Malteby who was on trial for murdering his wife Agnes.
Sharpe got his pardon because he was judged to be mad when he killed her.
This was one of the first documented legal cases where the mental condition of an accused was formally investigated and taken into account.
June 24, 1374 – The most notorious outbreak of dancing mania begins in Aachen.
Dancing mania was a typical medieval kind of collective near-psychotic behavior. Suddenly huge numbers of people would flock to the streets and all dance and move uncontrollably for hours or days in a semi-conscious trance, until collapsing from exhaustion.
Explanations for this intriguing phenomenon vary: mass psychogenic illness, mass hysteria? Escapism or social imitation? The brain effects of some viral infection?
After the 17th century, no more outbreaks of dancing mania were reported.
March 6, 1475 – Birth date of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who would become the most famous Italian Renaissance artist, known for both his sculptures (such as the Pietá) and paintings (for example those in the Sistine Chapel).
Today most researchers agree about Michelangelo’s homosexuality; but some also speculate that his enormous artistic activity may have functioned as a successful way to escape from chronic depression.
An indication for the latter is that friends described him as a very solitary, melancholic, socially withdrawn individual with almost no regard for personal care: he ate “more out of necessity than of pleasure” and “often slept in his clothes and boots.”
January 3, 1496 – Where’s the difference between genius and madness? On this date, Leonardo da Vinci tried for the first time to fly, with a human-powered device imitating the flapping of birds’ wings. He failed.
400 years later, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud famously used this and other achievements in an attempt to analyze all the complexities of Leonardo’s mind.
At the very least, Leonardo remains a great example. He not just dreamed his dreams: he kept trying to make them come true.
December 14, 1503 – Alleged birth date of French apothecary Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus. He became famous with his 1555 book Les Propheties.
The book purports to predict various important world events. It does so, however, in very vague terms only: allowing for interpretations after the event.
Nevertheless Nostradamus’ prophecies remained popular with gullible people even today: for example, some maintain he predicted 9/11 (which is nonsense).
Thus, the continuing popularity of this obvious fraud tells us more about the believers than about Nostradamus himself.
June 29, 1517 – Birth date of Flemish physician Rembert Dodoens (or Dodonaeus), one of the most influential doctors ever. Not because he became court physician of the Austrian emperor and later professor at the universities of Leuven and Leiden, but because of one of his books.
In 1554 he published his illustrated Cruydeboeck (Book of Herbs), which for a large part systematically described and classified medicinal herbs. The book also showed how to recognize usable, useless or poisonous varieties, how to best store them, and more.
Because the Cruydeboeck was not in Latin but in popular language, pharmacists and others soon began using it as a medication handbook. In English and French, frequently reprinted and expanded, it became the most popular translated book in Europe right after the Bible.
At a time when most medicines were of herbal origin, Dodoens’ book remained a prime medication reference for almost two centuries.
September 24, 1541 – Death of famous physician Paracelsus (Philip von Hohenheim, born in 1493, exact birth date unknown).
Paracelsus is best known for his observation that whether something will work as a medicine or a poison, just depends from the dose.
He also was the first physician ever to refer to the “unconscious”, when speculating that some illnesses might be caused by unconscious fantasies.
March 11, 1544 – Birth date of Torquato Tasso, who became one of the best known Italian poets ever, famous for his long Jerusalem Delivered (1580) and his sonnets.
Tasso led a troubled life, befriending prominent people and then alienating them again by his impulsiveness and moodiness. He kept moving from one place to another and for some years was put in a madhouse. At 51, he died just before the Pope would formally recognize him as a great poet.
With today’s knowledge, Tasso’s unpredictable behavior and weird moods can be better understood: it is very likely he suffered from bipolar disorder.
March 1, 1547 – Birth date of German philosopher Rudolph Goclenius (original name Göckel) who belongs in our gallery-of-the-past for one simple reason.
In 1590, as a professor in Marburg, he published a Latin treatise about “Psychology: that is, of the perfection of man, his soul and especially its elevation by some of the comments and discussions of the theologians and the philosophers of our time”.
I don’t know what exactly it was about, but this is now generally recognized as the very first book with the fancy new word “psychology” in its title.
August 8, 1553 – Death of the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro (born ca. 1478). He was the world’s first contagious diseases expert.
In his 1546 book On Contagion he developed the idea that some diseases might be transmitted by tiny airborne particles, and gave the first good description of typhus.
His 1530 poem Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (“Syphilis or The French Disease”) was the source of the name “syphilis” for the sexually transmitted disease that at the time had just cropped up in Europe.
October 9, 1562 – Death (at age 39 or 40, his exact birth date is unknown) of groundbreaking Italian physician and anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, whose name lives on today in female anatomy: the Fallopian tubes. A part of the ear nerve system is also named after him.
Among his many achievements, Falloppio was the first to find a way for syphilis prevention. In this context he also was the first to describe a condom, in the primitive form of a sheath of linen.
He tested the condom with 1,100 men to prove that it prevented infection with syphilis. According to some, this was the first large-scale “clinical trial” in medical history.
In spite of the efforts of people like Falloppio, syphilis kept raging for centuries. In the 19th and early 20th century, many patients ended up in a madhouse because syphilis often caused severe mental illness (“paralytic dementia”).
Several famous people lost their mental faculties in this way before they died from it. A notorious example of syphilis-induced madness is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900 after years of suffering.
It took until about 1950 before modern antibiotics provided an effective cure. But even today, it is estimated that worldwide 10 to 12 million people are still infected with syphilis.
April 17, 1586 – Baptism date of early English poet and playwright John Ford (birth date unknown, died ca. 1640). His best known work is the 1633 play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, about a brother and sister in love with each other.
We don’t have a portrait of Ford, but a modern edition of his Collected Works can still be bought at Amazon.
Ford’s works show a strong interest in “melancholia” (as depression was called at his time). Some think he was suffering from depression himself, and possibly knew Robert Burton’s famous 1621 book about depression.
After his death, an anonymous 1656 poem On The Time-Poets characterized him like this: “Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat, With folded arms and melancholy hat.”
September 15, 1613 – Birth date of French nobleman François de La Rochefoucauld, whose moralist sayings (Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes morales) would become immensely popular.
For centuries, so many people kept quoting him that today, many of his original maxims have lost their freshness: they’ve become dusty and stale.
Examples: “One must listen if one wishes to be listened to”; or “Often our virtues are just vices in disguise”; or “One is never as happy or unhappy as one imagines”.
Still, here is one that may well serve to characterize Facebook: “To succeed in the world, we do everything we can to appear successful already”.
October 11, 1616 (also found as October 2, 1616) – Birth date of the prominent German writer Andreas Gryphius. In his plays he tried to be witty and funny, but in his poetry he often was morbid, somber, melancholic.
The best known example of this is his 1656 poem collection Kirchhofsgedanken (“Cemetery Thoughts”).
He personified the somewhat depressing Baroque theme of his times, that human life is little but ultimately pointless “vanity”.
October 8, 1645 – After having run a hospital informally for a few years in her own home, thanks to a grant of 6000 francs French nurse Jeanne Mance officially establishes the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal as a hospital for the French colonial town of Montreal.
This was the very first actual hospital in North America. The original buildings burnt down several times but as an institution it still exists in Canada today, as a part of the Montreal university’s medical department.
September 22, 1665 – Premiere of the comedy L’Amour Médecin (“The Love Doctor”) by the famous French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin). King Louis XIV was the first to see it.
It was about a girl who gets very depressed because she isn’t allowed to marry; her father calls in several doctors to diagnose and cure her depression.
With biting sarcasm, Molière portrayed the doctors of those times as a bunch of ignorant, quarreling, incompetent charlatans.
In an happy end, he suggested that when depression is caused by unfulfilled love, only marrying will solve the problem.
August 2, 1667 – Famous Italian architect Francesco Borromini (67) kills himself in a fit of anger and frustration, taking an old sword that hung as decoration on the wall of his bedroom, and letting himself fall onto it.
Borromini, who had been a simple stonemason in his youth, had made a great career teaching himself: he was the designer of several beautiful Baroque churches in Rome.
But all his life he had been known for his unpredictable bouts of vicious temper interspersed with periods of deep “melancholy” – read: depression.
September 16, 1672 – Birth date of Swedish-German philosopher and Jesuit priest Johann Robeck. We do not know much about him, except that he wrote a book that is related to his death.
Robeck ended his life in 1735 (age 63) by drowning himself in the river Weser, near Bremen. He left behind his book as a manuscript.
A friend, university professor Johann Nicolaus Funck, published Robeck’s book posthumously, in 1736. Although written in Latin, it got enough attention to be reprinted in 1753.
In this Execercitatio Philosophica … De Morte Voluntaria (Philosophical Essay About Voluntary Death) Robeck defended the principle that suicide was not a religious sin or a crime.
His main reasoning was that if we consider life a gift from God, then we are also allowed to discard that gift, for the recipient of any gift is always free to do with it as he likes.
This certainly drew some attention at the time. French philosopher Voltaire mentioned Robeck in his 1759 novella Candide as one of twelve people “who have voluntarily put an end to their misery”.
July 12, 1680 – Birth of Abigail Williams, who as an 11-year-old girl in the Massachusetts town of Salem would develop symptoms of manic, psychotic behavior (together with her 9-year-old cousin Betty Parris).
When Abigail claimed to have been bewitched, this led to mass hysteria culminating in the notorious 1692-1693 Salem Witch Trials: over 150 people were arrested and 20 of them were executed for being witches.
September 5, 1698 – In an effort to “civilize” the Russian upper classes, Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) tries to end the custom of men wearing beards by introducing a Beard Tax.
Noblemen and officials (excepting clergy and peasants) who insisted on keeping their beard, were required to pay an annual Beard Tax of 100 rubles, and to carry a special coin as proof they had paid it.
Now here’s a brilliant idea – which modern despot will be the first to introduce a Tattoo Tax?
September 1, 1703 – Birth date of William Battie, who would become a specialist in the field of institutional care for the mentally ill. He was chief physician of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in London and also ran two profitable private clinics.
Battie’s 1758 Treatise on Madness was the first major book about how to treat mental illnesses. He wrote it to criticize the practices in the older Bethlem Hospital (“Bedlam”, Battie’s competitor).
According to Battie, one should not just lock away the mentally ill but try more actively to cure them, and not apply one standard policy to all patients but rather treat them according to their individual problems and needs.
New was also that Battie made a difference between “original” and “consequential” mental illness. But in other respects he was less modern: like his contemporaries, he still did advocate some harsh physical methods to “expel insanity”.
November 26, 1731 – Birth date of English early-romantic poet William Cowper. A deeply religious evangelical, he also wrote many popular hymns.
He was haunted by depressions. In the 1760s he made three suicide attempts and was sent to an asylum for a while; in 1773 he suffered from a psychotic delusion that God commanded him to sacrifice his life.
Cowper’s intense beliefs were both a blessing and a curse: while striving for Heaven, he was frequently tormented by terrible fears of Hell.
He died in 1800 from natural causes (an illness that back then was called “dropsy”, with swellings that were actually caused by either kidney or heart failure).
December 4, 1732 – Death of English poet and playwright John Gay (47). His biggest success had been The Beggar’s Opera, the satirical and innovative “ballad opera” (we would call it a musical now) with popular characters such as Polly Peachum.
The reason to include him here is not his life (as far as I know, he was not suffering from depression) nor his death itself. It’s Gay’s tomb, that still can be seen in Westminster Abbey. He had asked for a quote from his Beggar’s Opera to be inscribed on it:
Life is a Jest, and all Things show it:
I thought so once, and now I know it.
May 4, 1737 – English writer Eustace Budgell (who had contributed to the magazines Spectator, Tatler and Guardian) fills his coat pockets with stones and drowns himself in the Thames by jumping from a ferryboat near London Bridge. Financial problems had given him a feeling of total failure.
Ironically, his most-quoted words are not from his largely forgotten essays, but from the suicide note he left on his desk: “What Cato did, and Addison approved, cannot be wrong.”
This referred to the Roman senator Cato the Younger, who in 46 BC had killed himself because he would not live under the rule of Caesar. In 1712, Joseph Addison’s play Cato, A Tragedy had portrayed Cato as a kind of principled hero who preferred death over giving in to a tyrant.
The only problem with Budgell’s high-minded justification was, of course, that in his own case there had been no tyrannical Caesar.
May 31, 1738 – English madhouse patient Alexander Cruden escapes from Wright’s Madhouse in Bethnal Green. The next year he wrote a pamphlet to expose “the absolute necessity of regulating Private Madhouses in a more effectual manner than at present.”
Cruden (1699-1770) was a proofreader-corrector, bookseller, and compiler of an excellent concordance (complete word list for searching) of the Bible.
However, he was best known as an eccentric, who always carried a sponge to efface street inscriptions he thought wrong. He frequently got into brawls, and was also known for harassing women.
Although people admired his great accuracy and intelligence, he very often was judged insane and a nuisance: he was locked away several times again, in various madhouses.
Recently it has been suggested that Cruden, rather than being crazy, probably suffered from Asperger’s syndrome or a mild form of autism.
September 29, 1740 – Birth date of Thomas Percival, who as a prominent English physician in 1794 was the first to outline a professional code of conduct for the medical professions (physicians, surgeons and apothecaries).
In 1803 he published an extended version titled Medical Ethics, or a Code of Institutes and Precepts, Adapted to the Professional Conduct of Physicians and Surgeons. This was the first time someone used the term “medical ethics”.
Percival’s rules stressed responsible behavior both among colleagues in the profession, and towards all patients regardless their background or status.
When in 1847 the American Medical Association introduced its first professional code of conduct, most of it was a literal copy of Percival’s work.
If you allow me a cynical note: while such ethical rules were certainly accepted with the best intentions, we may wonder if they ever did enough to really protect patients from individual doctors misusing their position.
July 1, 1742 – Birth date of German scientist and philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, whose sharp aphorisms are still often quoted today.
Lichtenberg once suggested that, in order to more precisely chart human motives, you might arrange them in a compass circle like the winds and name them in a similar pattern. So (similar to North-North-West or West-West-North) one might discern “Food-Food-Fame” and “Fame-Fame-Food”. Or (my own variety) “Anger-Anger-Depression” and “Depression-Depression-Anger”
Referring to this Compass of Motives, Sigmund Freud said that perhaps Lichtenberg was even more remarkable as a psychologist than as a physicist. In his 1905 Der Witz (about joking), Freud gave this Lichtenberg quote:
“Everyone has a moral backside, which he won’t show unless he has to, keeping it covered as long as possible with the pants of respectability”.
October 19, 1745 – Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, famous for his 1726 Gulliver’s Travels, dies after some years of terrible physical and mental health problems. He himself had been very afraid of going insane, and many thought this was indeed what had happened.
In his will, Swift left most of his fortune to found a mental hospital. He expressly stipulated that this should be built not in some isolated place (like many “asylums” at that time) but should be situated next to a general hospital, because of the relations between physical and mental illness.
The mental health institution that was founded with Swift’s legacy still exists in Dublin today, as St. Patrick’s Hospital.
August 28, 1749 – Birth date of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As a young man, he became famous with his 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (often translated wrongly as “The Sorrows of young Werther”: in fact it means “The Sufferings of young Werther”).
The book told the story of Werther who becomes infatuated with a girl who already has another friend. After the girl and her friend turn out to have married, Werther chooses to kill himself.
The Werther story not just became hugely popular: this was the first book that caused a wave of “copycat suicides”. Several adolescent readers, emotionally identifying themselves with the fictional main character, did actually follow his example.
May 11, 1751 – Benjamin Franklin and physician Thomas Bond found the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, the first American hospital, which was meant to offer free medical care to the poor. Among its many pioneering achievements was its role as a practice center for teaching beginning physicians.
Almost from the beginning, this general hospital also had its own ward for the mentally ill, where psychiatric patients were cared for in a way that was fairly humane for the standards of that time.
In 1841, when the hospital’s two psychiatric wards had become overcrowded, these were made into a separate institution with its own building, the Pennsylvania Asylum for the Insane, also known as the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital.
February 20, 1759 – Birth date of German physician Johann Christian Reil. He founded one of the first psychology journals (1795) and became one the first university professors to specialize in psychiatry (Berlin, 1810).
In 1808, Reil was the one who introduced the new word “psychiatry”, which he used to indicate that this was not just a branch of medicine, but ought to be a discipline in its own right. He wanted to improve the bad conditions in asylums by introducing better methods of treatment.
Reil was a typical Romanticist who thought that the progress of civilization would create an ever greater distance between man and his natural roots, and thus might cause ever more mental health problems.
April 27, 1759 – Birth date of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and one suicide note (1795).
She tried to kill herself twice, but died in 1797 from childbirth complications.
December 6, 1768 – An important step towards modern information culture: in Edinburgh, printer Andrew Bell and some others begin publishing the 1st edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The story has it that King George III was so shocked by Bell’s graphic anatomical pictures in an article about midwifery, that he ordered those pages ripped from all copies.
In 2010, as consequence of going online, the revised 15th edition of Britannica would be the final printed version.
October 12, 1773 – In Williamsburg, Virginia, the first insane asylum in America is opened to accommodate “Persons of Insane and Disordered Mind”.
Its successor still exists there today as the Eastern State Hospital.
The original building burned down in 1885, but was later rebuilt to serve as a museum.
September 5, 1774 – Birth date of German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, who would paint many landscapes that strongly convey an atmosphere of human loneliness, insignificance, depression and mortality.
Here at StayOnTop I used his 1803 woodcut The Woman With the Spider’s Web to illustrate a post about depression in history: see 18th-Century Blues.
In 2004 a psychiatrist (Carsten Spitzer) tried to analyze Friedrich’s recurring inertia and weariness, confirming that from a modern point of view he must have suffered from clinical depression.
Friedrich, who died in 1840 at the age of 65, survived at least five major depression periods (each lasting over a year) and one suicide attempt; this was reflected in his work.
April 10, 1775 – Birth date of Maximilian Jacobi, a German physician who became an influential early psychiatrist. He was director of an asylum, and until his death in 1858 wrote many books and articles on mental health care.
He was an outspoken representative of the “somatic” school in 19th-century psychiatry, defending the view that most mental illnesses were caused by physical, organic defects: therefore, the patient should be seen as just a patient.
Consequently, Jacobi tried to curb the common practice of restraining the mentally ill with irons or straitjackets. His reforming role in Germany resembled that of William Tuke in Britain.
June 19, 1783 – Birth date of German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner, who in 1803 (formally a year before his French competitor Armand Séguin) discovered a way to isolate the alkaloid (the active component) from the opium plant.
He named the resulting substance “Morphium” after Morpheus, the ancient Greek god of sleep and dreams. In due course it became known as morphine. Later (around 1900) the German firm Bayer would develop a stronger semi-synthetic variety: heroin.
Morphine soon became popular as a pain killer, for example when practicing surgery on wounded soldiers – who then found out it was highly addictive.
While working as a pharmacist in Hameln from 1822 until his death in 1841, Sertürner suffered much from depression, which he tried to overcome by using morphine. So he ended up addicted to the drug he had invented himself.
June 27, 1791 – Suicide of German writer, essayist, literature critic, and fossils collector Johann Heinrich Merck (50) who had been one of the participants in the beginning Romantic movement.
For 20 years, he was a close friend of famous writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The letters they exchanged are an important historical source, revealing much about literary and intellectual culture at the time.
Later, Goethe in his autobiography described Merck as highly intelligent but also emotionally very unstable: “Sensible, quiet, well in one moment, it could occur to him the next moment [...] to do anything to hurt or injure someone maliciously.”
So had Merck lived today, his psychiatrist would probably have prescribed him lithium.
September 4, 1792 – During the French Revolution’s “September Massacres” several outbursts of brutal mob violence terrorized Paris. Some prisons were stormed by the rabble and the inmates either set free, or murdered.
On this particular night a mob stormed the Salpêtrière, the large hospital and asylum for the insane that at the time was also used as a jail for street prostitutes.
The mob set 134 prostitutes free. However, 25 “madwomen” were also dragged out of the asylum, some of them still in the chains that had served as straitjackets, and they were murdered on the spot.
What exactly caused people to kill defenseless mental patients? This remains a mass psychosis mystery.
July 31, 1809 – Birth date of Thomas Story Kirkbride, the most prominent 19th-century American expert on mental health care institutions.
Although trained as a surgeon, in 1840 he was made superintendent of the newly founded Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, where he kept working until his death in 1883. In 1854, he published an influential book on how to run “Hospitals for the Insane” and how to treat patients.
The fact that he married one of his patients is often cited as proof that regarding people with mental problems, he was less prejudiced than many of his contemporaries.
August 6, 1809 – Birth date of Alfred Tennyson, who would become the most popular poet of Victorian England, and whose work still is popular today.
Tennyson was known to suffer from very deep depression frequently, but he never succumbed to it (he would die peacefully at the age of 83).
Without doubt, the best known Tennyson quote is: “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
But I think another quote is the best summary of his life philosophy: “I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair.”
August 10, 1810 – Birth date of Forbes Winslow, who after being trained as a surgeon would become one of the most influential psychiatric experts in Victorian England (he died in 1874).
One of his many books, The Anatomy of Suicide (1840) explained that suicide was not some kind of criminal act, but should be seen as a result of mental illness.
Winslow founded two private mental health clinics where patients (at a cost) were treated in a more humane way than was usual in asylums at the time.
Often called as an expert witness in major criminal court cases, he made the use of the “insanity plea” a more common occurrence in British courtrooms.
May 7, 1812 – Birth date of the English poet Robert Browning, whose famous 1855 poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came can be interpreted as a striking evocation of a totally meaningless quest: wandering through the barren, horrifying landscape of a depressed mind.
March 2, 1813 – This was a bad day for a mrs. Foulkes, whose house on Ivy Lane in London was a madhouse – literally. In those days anyone could make money by taking in the mentally ill, provided you paid a yearly license fee of £10 (about £600 or $900 in today’s money).
This fateful day in March, an inspector visited her house and found four “lunatics”. He reported: “Some of them had straight-waistcoats, one was double waistcoated, had a lock which crossed the wrists; and at night she had a lock on her legs.” According to mrs. Foulkes, none of the four did need medical care.
She ended up with a huge fine of £500: not for how she treated her “lunatics”, but because she hadn’t paid for a license.
May 5, 1813 – Birth date of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who in 1844 was one of the first to write a profound analysis of anxiety: The Concept of Anxiety. He argued that what we feel when standing on the edge of a cliff is not just fear of falling, but also fear because we have the option to jump: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”.
June 16, 1816 – A meeting of friends triggers the first modern literary expressions of horror. English poet Lord Byron challenges his guests: who could write the most nightmarish thing?
As the result, Byron wrote the poem Darkness about the end of the world and the last human beings; guest Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein about a scientist who brings to life a monstrous artificial man; and guest John Polidori wrote the story The Vampyre about a charming stranger who turns out to kill people by sucking out their blood.
July 20, 1816 – Death of the prominent Russian poet Gavrila Derzhavin. On his table, an unfinished poem is found:
“The current of Time’s river
Will carry off all human deeds
And sink into oblivion
All peoples, kingdoms and their kings.
And if there’s something that remains
Through sounds of horn and lyre,
It too will disappear into the maw of time
And not avoid the common pyre”
(broken off here)
November 23, 1818 – Opening date of the West Riding County Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield (near Leeds, UK). This became one of the largest and most prominent asylums of Victorian England.
Between 1818 and 1860, its capacity grew from 150 to 1100 patients. Under the direction of a “phrenologist” (practicing a very primitive form of neurology) they got “moral treatment” and “therapeutic employment”.
The original 1818 building still exists, but the interior has been converted into residential apartments.
April 20, 1820 – Official opening of the Lincoln Lunatic Asylum (Lincoln, England). Designed by architect Richard Ingleman, this was one of the first purpose-built mental hospitals in England.
Originally meant for 50 patients, in 1837 it already housed 130. The monumental building continued to serve as a mental hospital until 1985 (it is a conference center today).
Thanks to physician Edward Parker Charlesworth, between 1830-1840 this became the first British asylum where the policy of using “physical restraints” was systematically abolished.
For his accomplishments, Charlesworth was later honored with a statue on the building’s lawn.
June 23, 1823 – This night, law student Abel Griffiths (22) became the last one in England to be buried ignominiously at a crossroads. The day before, Griffiths had killed himself (after shooting his father in a quarrel).
A pharmacist came forward to testify that not long before, Abel had sought treatment for “depression in the brain” and therefore had not been of sound mind.
But it was an English tradition, by law, to bury those who had committed suicide (both a major crime and a grave sin) at a crossroads where everyone would walk over the grave.
So Griffiths’ bloodied body was lowered into a five-foot-deep pit at the corner of London’s Grosvenor Place, unwashed and in his underwear, rolled in a piece of hemp matting.
But public opinion was changing; there was protest. A week later (July 2nd) three local men dug up Abel’s body and took it away in a hackney coach. He was reburied in the workhouse inmates’ corner of St. George’s cemetery.
The law was changed that same year. People who had committed suicide could now be buried in a graveyard – but without any ceremony and only at night.
November 21, 1823 – In Edinburgh, physician Alexander Morison (1779-1866) starts to deliver the first formal lectures on psychiatry. A visit to an asylum in France had convinced him that physicians in this field needed some specialist training.
Morison soon became consultant-physician to several asylums and worked for many years with patients in the Bethlem asylum. For over thirty years, he kept lecturing on the practice of mental health care.
In 1825 his first lectures were published as a book, Outlines of Lectures on Mental Disease. A few years later he wrote a book with advice based on case studies.
The mini-portrait here is a cut from a curious painting showing Morison: it was painted in 1852 by Richard Dadd, one of his psychiatric patients in Bedlam.
November 29, 1825 – Birth date of Jean-Martin Charcot, who in 1882 would found the first modern neurology clinic: at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris.
One of his specialisms was the treatment of “hysteria”, extreme emotional instability: he was the first to look into the possibility of hereditary or traumatic causes.
He also pointed out that hysteria (at the time often considered a “women’s affliction”) could affect men just as well.
In some respects he was one of the forerunners of Freud (he actually was one of Freud’s teachers).
June 9, 1829 – Suicide of George Washington Adams (28), the eldest son of 6th US President John Quincy Adams.
He killed himself by jumping off a ferryboat to New York in Long Island Sound; his body washed ashore four days later.
George, an unmarried lawyer, was known to have a troubled life with bouts of drunkenness and womanizing; people described him as being predisposed to “gloom” and episodes of paranoia.
Today, he would have been diagnosed as suffering from chronic (or perhaps bipolar) depression. Had he lived today, modern antidepressant medication might have saved him.
December 4, 1829 – Lord William Bentinck, the British governor of India, defies local conservatives by ordaining that anyone who abetted a case of suttee, would from now on be judged in court as a murderer.
Suttee (or Sati) was the long-standing religious tradition of ritual suicide by a widow after her husband’s death, requiring the widow to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
August 25, 1830 – This evening, doctor Edward Wright (42), superintendent of the London Bethlem Hospital (the “Bedlam asylum” for the mentally ill) was caught red-handed with his pants down in “the female basement, in a very intoxicated state”.
An investigation brought to light that he also had a habit of sneaking into the hospital’s “dead house” at night, to cut off deceased patients’ heads. He kept the skulls to study phrenology, the then-popular belief that one could read a person’s character from the form of their skull.
Wright was fired and ended up as a doctor in the brand-new Southern Australian colony of Adelaide. There he got into new difficulties. In 1845, while drunk again, he gave a mental patient (who for his own safety had been locked up in the local jail) a lethal overdose of morphine.
Until his death in 1859, Wright kept working as an unregistered practitioner in Adelaide.
December 10, 1830 – Birth date of poet Emily Dickinson. Living in seclusion, she wrote great poetry about themes such as mortality and the inner landscape of the mind.
Locked in our common cage of language, with her unique short-cut associative almost gasping style she keeps rattling the bars of that cage.
During her lifetime she published only a few of her poems; her work would not be properly recognized until after her death (in 1886, at 55).
July 19, 1832 – In the English town of Worcester, Charles Hastings founds the first modern doctors’ association, the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association. Growing fast and soon renamed British Medical Association, it would unite and represent the medical profession in Britain.
As one of its achievements, in 1858 the BMA pushed the introduction of a law that barred unqualified people from working as a doctor.
July 25, 1834 – Death of the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after a life full of recurring depressions and a severe opium addiction caused by his use of the opium derivative laudanum as medication for stress relief.
Modern research indicates that Coleridge probably suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition that in his time was not yet properly understood or recognized.
January 9, 1835 – Birth date of John Batty Tuke, who became one of the most important British psychiatrists in the Victorian era.
In the 1860s he introduced a new policy of open-doors care in mental health institutions in Scotland, giving the patients more freedom and better attention.
In the 1880-1890s he developed a consistent theory of mental illnesses being caused primarily by physical problems, and therefore being just a disease.
With these views, he strongly opposed the then-popular association of “insanity” with moral infirmity, deficiency or perversion.
November 6, 1835 – Birth date of Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who after some years as director of an insane asylum in the 1870s became professor of forensic medicine (and later also psychiatry) in Turin.
He became known for his theory that criminal people could be recognized and classified by their physical characteristics, such as a sloping forehead, larger ears, and longer arms. This theory implied that most criminals were born with some inherent defect that made them criminals.
These ideas became quite popular for a while in the early 1900s, but in the end proved to be untenable.
Lombroso loved collecting study material; he had over 400 skulls both of executed criminals and of non-criminal people (soldiers, mostly).
Perhaps more interesting is that he also collected (as one of the first) art created by psychiatric patients. He did this because of another one of his theories: he believed that artistic genius was actually some kind of hereditary insanity.
October 13, 1836 – Lutheran pastor Theodor Fliedner and his wife Friederike open their “Deaconess Home and Hospital” in the German town of Kaiserswerth.
Their innovative work aimed specifically at offering women a more modern and practical in-house training as nurses.
One of their enthusiast students was Florence Nightingale, who in 1846 and 1851 stayed at Kaiserswerth and considered it her most inspirational example.
February 5, 1837 – Birth date of French psychologist and philosopher Léon Dumont. He would die young (at 39) but left behind some pioneering books about human emotions, habits and behavior.
Several of his works can be bought at Amazon in recent editions and some can be read online: such as his influential 1862 analysis of why, unlike all other animals, we do laugh (Des causes du rire).
Strangely, I could not find a single portrait or photo of him – at least not online. Should we take this as a hint that one’s thoughts are more important than one’s face?
August 25, 1838 – The newspaper The Sangamo Journal in Springfield, Illinois, publishes an anonymous poem in the form of an emotional (but imaginary) suicide letter: “The Suicide’s Soliloquy”.
Based on varied bits of secondary evidence, recent research indicates that the author of this poem was none other than future President Abraham Lincoln, expressing one of his frequent depressed moods.
May 8, 1839 – Birth date of George Miller Beard who (after having served as a surgeon in the Civil War) became one of America’s most prominent neurologists in the 1870s, but died in 1883 when he was 43.
Beard was the one who defined “neurasthenia” as a complex condition involving symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, and depression. He saw the whole as a consequence of nervous exhaustion, caused by the fast pace and high demands of modern urban life.
In psychiatry today the word “neurasthenia” is no longer used, but between ca. 1880-1920 this was a very frequent diagnosis.
Beard also was one of the first who consistently pleaded for abolishing the death penalty for mentally ill murderers, arguing that in a case of insanity there might be no actual guilt.
April 2, 1840 – In Chase’s Tavern, Baltimore, six drunkards decide to help each other to quit drinking and remain sober. To that end, they found the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society.
Known as “the Washingtonians” their organization worked more or less like the 20th-century Alcoholics Anonymous (minus the anonymity part). It was a huge success, with soon about half a million members.
But in the 1860s, it petered out as quickly as it had risen, due to policy conflicts but also to credibility issues: it was not uncommon for speakers at a Washingtonian gathering to be found drunk in a pub the next day.
August 14, 1840 – Birth date of the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who with his 1886 reference work Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie became the first influential sexologist.
He extensively studied and interpreted what he himself considered “misdirected” behavior such as homosexuality, fetishism, sadism and pedophilia.
His book was intended for professionals only (psychiatrists, judges etc.) and he wrote some parts of it in Latin to make the explicit contents inaccessible to the general public.
November 13, 1841 – Scottish surgeon James Braid happens to see the show of a traveling “mesmerist” and finds it so interesting that he immediately begins to research the effects that he saw.
Introducing the term “hypnosis” (originally neuro-hypnosis, for “sleep of the nerves”) in the next twenty years Braid laid a basis for “hypnotherapy”.
In Victorian times, hypnosis became a popular (but not undisputed) method to treat emotionally unstable patients: those suffering from depression, anxiety and “hysteria”.
March 30, 1842 – In Jefferson, Georgia, surgeon Crawford Long removes a tumor from the neck of patient James M. Venable. With this operation, Long was the very first to use inhaled diethyl ether as an effective anesthetic.
In the 1860s, this kind of ether became in general use for anesthesia. It made all kinds of medical operations less painful, and therefore easier and safer as well. Even dentists began using it.
It was however flammable and had several side effects such as post-anesthetic nausea and vomiting, so it is no longer used today. Modern alternatives are methyl propyl ether (Neothyl) and methoxyflurane (Penthrane).
July 7, 1843 – Birth date of Camillo Colgi, an Italian physician who became one of the first modern neurologists. From 1872 to 1876 he was Chief Medical Officer in a mental asylum for the “incurable” in Abbiategrasso, near Milan.
There, he improvised a laboratory in a kitchen to research the human brain (probably using brain material taken from deceased patients). He did this because he was convinced that mental illnesses might be caused by something like broken nerve cell connections within the brain.
In his asylum kitchen lab, Colgi invented a breakthrough method to make brain cells better visible by chemically impregnating them. This allowed him to draw the first detailed map showing neural “pathways” in brain parts such as the hippocampus.
In 1906, by then pathologist at the University of Padua, Colgi (together with a Spanish colleague) got a Nobel prize in Medicine for this work.
June 6, 1844 – London draper George Williams founds the first YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), an organization which soon would branch out very successfully all over Europe and North America. Its primary goal was to counteract the bad moral effects that industrializing city life had on young people.
It tried to do this by organizing many physical and social activities, all aimed at helping people to develop and maintain “a healthy spirit, mind, and body”. The YMCA is still active in many ways and manyi places today.
February 1, 1844 – Birth date of G. Stanley Hall, who as a prominent psychologist would put his new discipline on the map, and became the first president of the APA (American Psychological Association).
As president of Clark University, he also was the one who in 1909 introduced psychiatrist Sigmund Freud to the American public.
On the downside, Hall represented rather dubious views on authoritarian leadership, collective identity, survival of the fittest, racial superiority and eugenics.
Hall died in 1924, so we will never know how he would have reacted to the role of similar ideas as a key element in the 1930s German Nazi ideology.
September 30, 1847 – In the British town of Ramsgate, some members of the Christian temperance movement officially found a Vegetarian Society to “support, represent and increase the number of vegetarians in the UK”.
Their organization (which still exists) was the very first of its kind in the world. In 1853, this original Vegetarian Society had nearly 900 members.
September 14, 1849 – Birth date of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who in 1901 developed the theory of the “conditioned reflex”.
A standard example from his experiments is the one with dogs that, when used to a bell or whistle at feeding time, would always start salivating when hearing that bell or whistle.
With varied experiments like this (not just with dogs but also with children), Pavlov showed that by simple habitual association, we learn to react on recurring events in a fixed, predictable way.
October 3, 1849 – Mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe (40) is found lying in a delirious state in the gutter of a Baltimore street.
He died in a hospital four days later, without having regained enough consciousness to explain what had happened to him.
His death would remain an unsolved mystery forever, although many people suspected alcoholism may have been the principal cause.
February 26, 1852 – Birth date of John Harvey Kellogg, who as a vegetarian, surgeon and clinic manager would become not just the co-inventor of a well-known corn flakes breakfast cereal.
Between 1870-1910, Kellogg profiled himself as a champion of the typical Victorian anti-sexuality movement. He fulminated fiercely against masturbation, which according to him destroyed both physical and mental health.
For this reason, he advocated circumcision for boys and a similar procedure for girls – intentionally to be performed without using any anesthetics.
In retrospect, he may have done lots of people much more harm than good. I guess it’s better we don’t not speculate here what a psychiatrist like Freud might have thought of Kellogg’s own mental health.
March 4, 1852 – Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol (42) dies after an extremely self-destructive depression made him stay in bed for nine days, refusing to eat anything.
He had been a prolific writer, especially famous for his satirical novel Dead Souls about corruption and serfdom in Czarist Russia.
Two weeks before his death, Gogol’s depression had made him burn most of his manuscripts, including the finished but not yet published part II of Dead Souls.
January 5, 1855 – Birth date of King Gillette, who around 1900 would introduce the mass-produced “Gillette Safety Razor”, a closed holder containing a disposable blade. When it got dull, you simply put in a new blade.
Unfortunately, from another perspective, his invention did not at all serve safety. It meant that many households now always had a stack of small but literally razor-sharp blades at hand.
Because of their sharpness, loose Gillette “safety” blades were often used by self-mutilating teens, or in suicide attempts by slashing veins.
February 15, 1856 – Birth date of Emil Kraepelin, who in the early 1900s became the most prominent psychiatrist in Germany.
Kraepelin saw mental disorders as diseases caused mainly by biological and genetic problems.
His research concentrated on schizophrenia and manic depression (in today’s terms, bipolar disorder). His clinical approach contributed not just to the development of psychiatry as a serious academic discipline, but also to a better treatment of psychiatric patients.
Unfortunately, like many people at that time, Kraepelin supported eugenics and “racial hygiene”. After his death in 1927, the Nazis would take such ideas to a criminal extreme that Kraepelin himself probably never anticipated.
May 6, 1856 – Birth date of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychotherapy.
July 29, 1856 – German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (46) dies in a private asylum in Endenich, near Bonn.
He had been admitted there two years before (in 1854) on his own request, right after a suicide attempt by jumping from a Rhine bridge: boatmen had pulled him out of the water.
Since long he had been suffering from “neurasthenia”: an overall condition of anxiety, dizziness, depression and exhaustion. Some biographers think that today, the diagnosis would have been bipolar disorder.
Exactly how Schumann came to die in the asylum remains unclear. Among the different speculations are: an acute outbreak of long-latent syphilis; an accidental poisoning with mercury (then used as an antiseptic); or a brain tumor.
Schumann’s wife Clara, who was a talented pianist and composer herself, survived him by 40 years.
March 7, 1857 – Birth date of Austrian neuro-psychiatrist Julius Wagner-Jauregg. He was highly respected between ca. 1890-1940, but is high on my list of “horror doctors”.
He was a notorious Nazi, racist and anti-semite. As a proponent of “racial hygiene” he wanted to erase mental diseases in future generations by forced sterilization of the mentally ill. He actually sterilized some of his patients to curb “excessive masturbation”.
In 1927 Wagner-Jauregg got a Nobel prize (really!) for his discovery that if you intentionally infect psychotic or schizophrenic patients with malaria, the high fever might cure some of them.
Incredibly, in Austria today there are still streets and schools named after this creep: if you need psychiatric care in the city of Linz, you’ll land in the Landesnervenklinik Wagner-Jauregg.
April 30, 1857 – Birth date of Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler, who between ca. 1890-1930 would contribute immensely to our understanding of mental illness. In some respects, though not all, he was influenced by Freud.
In 1908 Bleuler was the one who first used the term schizophrenia instead of the old “dementia praecox”; he used to new word to stress his new insights in that disease as a disturbed relation between emotional and rational functions. Unlike earlier psychiatrists he did not view it as an incurable condition; he thought that for many schizophrenia patients it would be better to not remain isolated in a hospital forever.
He was not just interested in mental illness but also in more general emotional processes such as what he called switching: sudden emotional shifts, like excessive love transforming into extreme hate.
Bleuler introduced more terms that have become common today, such as autism and ambivalence. Among the many things he studied were psychosis, the relation between neurosis and alcohol addiction, sex-related anxiety, and the origins of feelings of guilt.
June 1, 1857 – French poet Charles Baudelaire publishes his famously decadent Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”).
This controversial book popularized the use of the word “spleen” to indicate a mood of deeply bored melancholy.
October 30, 1857 – Birth date of French physician and neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette. In 1884 he was the first to analyze a condition characterized by recurring involuntary tics. Named after him, this illness is still known today as “Tourette syndrome”.
He also experimented with the use of hypnosis as a method in psychotherapy. In 1893 a hysterical female patient, falsely claiming to have been hypnotized against her will, shot him in the head.
Tourette survived, but after this began to suffer from depressions and manic moods himself. In 1904 he died as a patient in a Swiss psychiatric institution.
December 3, 1857 – Birth date of Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad, who after a career as sailor became a successful author of many novels, such as Heart of Darkness (1899).
Conrad made his way through life in spite of his suffering from both physical illnesses and frequent severe depressions.
As a young man he survived an attempt to shoot himself; he kept going on (and would die in 1924, age 66, from natural causes).
August 20, 1858 – From 1852 to 1861, the newspaper New-York Daily Tribune employed a correspondent who later would become famous (or notorious) as the inspirer of communism: the socialist Karl Marx.
On this day in 1858, the Tribune published an article by Karl Marx about The Increase of Lunacy in Great Britain. Using British government sources, Marx discussed the British system of public and private asylums.
He quoted a report detailing the terrible conditions in some asylums for the impoverished mentally ill, where the main focus was just economy instead of the well-being of the patients.
Marx ended his article (full text here) by remarking that British stables looked like boudoirs compared to their asylums: implying that the British cared much better for their horses than for the mentally ill.
May 22, 1859 – Birth date of Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish physician and writer who in his popular stories (from 1887 to 1927) created the best known detective ever: the sharply observing and deducing Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle profiled Sherlock Holmes as an obvious bipolar character, with both manic-active and depressed-lethargic episodes. In the stories, Holmes keeps trying to overcome his periodic depressions by playing the violin (sometimes), smoking (frequently) and using cocaine (as a real addict).
Portrayed in this way, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes probably was the first popular fiction character suffering from frequent depressions.
July 9, 1860 – At St. Thomas Hospital in London, Florence Nightingale opens her Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses, the world’s first modern nursing school. It was funded by a huge amount of public gifts she’d collected in the few years before.
The institution does still exist today (as the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing & Midwifery, part of King’s College in London).
February 12, 1861 – Birth date of Lou Andreas-Salomé, who would become one of the first female psychoanalysts, interested especially in women and sexuality.
She was a prolific author who wrote not just psychiatric studies, but other essays and novels as well.
A fascinating personality, she was known for many love affairs and friendships; among her friends were philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.
When she died in Germany in 1937, Nazi thugs immediately ransacked and destroyed her huge library under the pretense that most books represented “Jewish science”.
December 12, 1863 – Birth date of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose world-famous painting The Scream is considered by many people as the most iconic expression of universal fear, anxiety and desperation. One of the many interpretations is that it simply shows the human reaction to an unbearable reality.
Between 1893 and 1910 Munch, who suffered from neurotic anxiety, depressions, and bouts of alcoholism himself, made four different versions of this striking painting.
Looking back later, Munch himself said that without his mental problems, he could never have created all the art that he did. He died in 1944 (at the age of 80).
December 16, 1863 – Birth date of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. His skeptical down-to-earth philosophy, combined with his readability (he also wrote poems and a novel) made him very popular.
Many Santayana quotes have become well-known aphorisms: his 1905 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is now an inscription at Auschwitz.
For many of these quotes it is easy to forget they once sounded new and fresh. Examples: “The Bible is literature, not dogma” (1910) or “Only the dead have seen the end of war” (1922).
May 20, 1864 – Poet John Clare (70) dies peacefully in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he had been living his last 23 years. Due to his background and his knowledge of nature, in his own time he was known as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.
Originally an uneducated farmhand, as a successful poet he had felt out of place everywhere: not at home among simple villagers anymore, but not at home among his more refined reader public either.
Besides deep depressions he also suffered from periods of delusion: thinking he was Shakespeare or Byron, he had set about rewriting their poetry.
One of his best known poems, I Am, written in the asylum shortly before he died, expressed loneliness and a longing for both the innocence of childhood and the blissful emptiness of death.
June 14, 1864 – Birth date of the German psychiatrist-neurologist Alois Alzheimer.
Between 1901-1906, while working with patient Mrs. Auguste Deter (and after her death in 1906 dissecting her brain) he identified the aging-related kind of dementia which would become known as “Alzheimer’s disease”.
August 22, 1864 – At a conference in Geneva, 16 countries adopt the Geneva Convention which implied the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
That same year, Swiss surgeon Louis Appia and Dutch former marine lieutenant Charles van de Velde became the first two people to work officially under the neutral, independent symbol of the Red Cross.
December 8, 1864 – Birth date of French sculptor Camille Claudel. In the 1880s she had an affair with her teacher Rodin, but she was recognized as a brilliant sculptor in her own right.
After 1905, she appeared to develop some mental problems. In 1913, her family had her diagnosed as “schizophrenic”, and forced her into a psychiatric hospital.
Having been moved to another asylum, she remained locked in there for almost 30 years, until her death in 1943.
Many people assert that Claudel was never very ill, and that her mother and brother kept her locked up solely because they resented her independent, artistic lifestyle.
August 13, 1865 – In an insane asylum in Vienna, physician Ignaz Semmelweiss (47) dies from maltreatment (straitjacket, dark cell, laxatives, dousing with cold water) and from his wounds.
He had been badly beaten two weeks before in a struggle with the asylum guards, after having been lured into the asylum under a pretense. People wanted him locked up because of his increasingly erratic behavior.
A few years earlier, Semmelweiss had proven that simply by washing their hands with a disinfecting chlorine solution, the staff in his maternity clinic could greatly reduce the number of fatal fever infections.
Unfortunately he was thirty years ahead of his time: instead of accepting his clear results, the medical world refused to take his ideas seriously. They even ridiculed him.
The total lack of recognition contributed to the mental breakdown that lead to Semmelweiss’ tragic death. Today, he is widely honored as a medical pioneer.
September 28, 1865 – Having overcome many obstacles in the course of her studies, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (29) passes the exam of the British Society of Apothecaries which entitles her to a license to practice medicine, making her the first registered female physician in the UK. She opened a practice later that year.
After she had passed the exam as the best of 7 candidates, the Society of Apothecaries immediately changed the rules to formally bar other women from following her example.
Because English universities refused to admit her, in 1870 Garrett Anderson learned French to get a medical degree at the French Sorbonne, which made her the first female MD in Britain.
In 1873 she became the first female member of the British Medical Association which (following the apothecaries’ example) immediately changed the rules to prevent admittance of other women.
Garrett Anderson also was the co-founder of the first English hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, and pioneered in many other activities: in 1908 she was elected mayor of her home town Aldeburgh, the first female mayor in England.
September 13, 1866 – Birth date of Swiss-American psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, who would become one of the key figures in psychiatry between ca. 1900-1940, and not just as president of the APA (American Psychiatric Association).
As director of mental health clinics and as professor of psychiatry, first at Cornell and then at Johns Hopkins University, he had a huge influence on the training of a whole generation of psychiatrists.
His approach combined concepts from Freud with different elements from others. His central notion was what he called “psychobiology”: meaning that when diagnosing and treating psychiatric patients, one should look at all physical, psychological, and social factors (not just one of those).
In practice, this holistic view implied (a) more carefully registering a patient’s complete life history before starting therapy; and (b) taking a better look at preventive or corrective efforts regarding a patient’s daily environment and habits.
June 28, 1867 – Birth date of American psychologist Lightner Witmer.
He was the one who in 1896 founded the world’s first Psychological Clinic, at the University of Pennsylvania. Initially his innovative clinic was intended mainly for studying and treating children with serious mood and behavior problems.
Witmer was also the one who introduced and defined the term “clinical psychology”.
July 10, 1872 – Birth date of French psychologist Théodore Simon, who together with Alfred Binet in 1905 would introduce the first standardized intelligence test: the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale.
Ironically, for the rest of his life (he died in 1961) Simon kept criticizing the excessive use of this kind of standard tests, warning that psychologists might look too much at test results instead of trying to really understand people.
July 7, 1873 – Birth date of Hungarian psychiatrist Sándor Ferenczi, one of the most important people in early (1900-1930) psychoanalysis.
Unlike Freud, who wanted to be a neutral listener, Ferenczi pleaded for a more active, personal involvement of the therapist.
He also was one of the first to consider that some patients’ stories of childhood sexual abuse might simply be true.
October 24, 1873 – The anorexia disorder (young women slowly starving themselves by refusing adequate food) is not a recent phenomenon. It is highly probable that some female Catholic saints from the Middle Ages were in fact anorexia patients.
On this day in 1873, British physician William Gull held a lecture for colleagues, presenting his new book Anorexia Nervosa. It was based on nearly ten years of study and practice, making him the very first anorexia expert in medical history.
Gull described some cases (girls in the 16-26 age group) and explained how his “gentle force” approach of frequently administering light doses of food was often successful. He warned against letting the girls have it their own way, as this might end in a catastrophe.
He also tried to learn from his own therapeutic failures: in the 1880s, he dissected the body of a girl who had died from anorexia. This made him conclude that the cause of death had nothing to do with some physical, organic defect, but was indeed just self-inflicted starvation.
Needless to say, even today anorexia can still be a serious problem.
July 26, 1875 – Birth date of the famous Swiss psychologist/psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, one of the primary founders of analytical psychology.
Jung focused especially on the unconscious level in our mind, which unlike Freud he saw not primarily as a container of repressed elements, but also in a much wider sense as a source for positive feelings and experiences (such as religion).
May 3, 1877 – Birth date of Karl Abraham, who after a meeting with Freud in 1907 became an early and very prominent psychoanalyst in Germany.
One of Abraham’s main study objects was “manic depression” (what we now call bipolar disorder). He tried to find a purely Freudian explanation for it. In the light of modern research, today this approach is not really relevant anymore.
Perhaps more important was his other Freud-based interest: investigating relations between sexual traumas and mental illness. This got him, as one of the first, to seriously consider the long-term effects of sexual abuse in childhood.
Abraham died from lung cancer in 1925 when he was 48.
September 26, 1877 – Birth date of Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti, who in 1938 became the first physician to experiment with applying electroshocks to the brain. This is known today as ECT, electro-convulsive therapy.
Cerletti discovered that such shocks, or rather the epileptic fits generated by the shocks, could help in extreme cases of schizophrenia, mania, or depression.
According to an often-told story, the idea for this treatment came to him when he happened to see how in a slaughterhouse the pigs were stunned by electric shocks to the head. For more about Cerletti’s early experiments, see here.
ECT is a bit like swatting flies with a sledgehammer: it may work, but at a cost. Researchers are trying to develop more subtle alternatives that avoid side effects such as memory loss. But in cases of serious depression, ECT is still being used as a kind of last-resort therapy.
December 18, 1878 – Birth date of Joseph Dzhugashvili, a paranoid who would become one of the most ruthless dictators of the 20th century, surpassed in cruelty and madness only by Hitler.
During his 1922-1953 dictatorship at least 3 million people were executed; historians estimate up to 30 million civilians died by deportations and deliberate mismanagement.
This bloodthirsty goblin (photos and statues never revealed he was only 5 ft. 3 in. tall, 160 cm, with a withered left arm) had people revere him under his grandiose self-chosen name: “Stalin” (Man Of Steel).
June 7, 1880 – Birth date of the German psychiatrist and neurologist Friedrich Meggendorfer, who would start his career as assistant of the famous psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin.
As a professor and head of a psychiatric institution in Erlangen, in 1939 Meggendorfer was the one who introduced the then-new ECT (electroshock therapy) in Nazi Germany.
March 8, 1881 – On this date, a new addiction was made affordable: inventor James Albert Bonsack was granted a US patent for his industrial cigarette rolling machine.
Until then, cigarettes had been expensive; a skilled worker could produce at best 4 hand-rolled cigarettes a minute. Bonsack’s machine spewed out 200 cigarettes a minute.
He sold his invention to businessman James Buchanan Duke, whose American Tobacco Company by 1890 flooded the American and British markets with cheap cigarettes.
June 27, 1882 – Birth date of philosopher and psychologist Eduard Spranger, known for his 1914 book Lebensformen, also published as Types of Men. He discerned six primary types of people by their self-actualization focus:
(1) the Theoretical, focused on knowledge and truth;
(2) the Utilitarian, focused on achievements and gains;
(3) the Aesthetic, focused on form and beauty;
(4) the Social, focused on emotions and relationships;
(5) the Political, focused on position and power;
(6) the Religious, focused on unity and meaningfulness.
Decades later (in the 1950s) Spranger’s old typology would inspire some personality tests. So which one are you?
July 16, 1882 – Ailing Mary Todd Lincoln (63, wife of the late President) dies at the Springfield home of her sister, who had cared for her during her last years.
She had suffered from several physical problems and had a truly tragic life, having lost not just her husband but also three of her four sons. Apart from that, she also is one of the best known (due to her position, best documented) 19th century American depression patients.
We know many details about her extended periods of deep depression, her sudden mood swings and extravagant shopping sprees, her brief hospitalization in an asylum, her 1876 suicide attempt, and her then-popular laudanum (opium-based) medication that from a modern point of view must have done her far more harm than good.
Based on all the biographical sources and studies, it is quite obvious that Mary must have suffered from serious bipolar disorder. To me, somehow, it is also tragic to realize that had she lived a hundred years later, adequate medication (if only a regular dose of lithium) might have made her life much less difficult.
July 22, 1882 – Birth date of Edward Hopper, American realist painter.
Between 1913 and his death in 1967, he made several paintings that (in my view, at least) belong to the top 100 of acute representations of loneliness and depression in modern society.
For an example, see Automat.
February 23, 1883 – Birth date of German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers. Although today he is remembered mainly as a philosopher, in the first years of his career he contributed to modern psychiatry.
Between ca. 1910-1920 he introduced the “biographical method” of examining patients, with more attention for the individual life history of patients and their own self-assessment.
He also introduced the important diagnostic notion that the presence and form of a symptom (for example the occurrence of a hallucination or delusion) is more important than its incidental content (what that hallucination or delusion is about).
Jaspers spent the second half of his life (if I may put this bluntly) seeking a philosophical foundation for the individual meaning of life, and how to transcend its limitations. Which is why some call him an existential philosopher.
June 20, 1884 – Birth date of German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz, who around 1930 achieved fame all over the world with his concept of “autogenic training”, a technique of achieving deep relaxation by systematic self-hypnosis.
I think, however, that we ought to remember the good Dr. Schultz for some other things. He shamelessly used the Nazi regime (1933-1945) to further his own career and get prominent positions.
At the time, he not just supported the Nazi “T4” program of euthanasia for mentally ill patients. No, Dr. Schultz also personally organized a novel program of testing people for the pervert crime of homosexuality. Suspects were forced to have intercourse with a prostitute, and those who failed this test, were sent to their death in a concentration camp.
Unbelievably, this nasty creep was simply allowed to take up his work again in postwar Germany: in the 1950s, he even was one of the editors of the journal Psychotherapie.
September 11, 1885 – Birth date of English writer D.H. Lawrence, known for the uproar caused by his 1928 (for those times sexually explicit) novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
I prefer to commemorate him for the touching way he tried to reflect on death and dying in his poem The Ship of Death, written when he was terminally ill, a few months before his death in 1930. Ending with the lines:
Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.
November 7, 1885 – Birth of Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein. Studying and working in Switzerland, in 1911 she was the first woman ever to write a dissertation about psychoanalysis. The prominent psychologist Jean Piaget was one of her therapy clients.
After her return to Russia in 1923, she tried to develop and run a modern kindergarten experiment, but she was thwarted by the Stalinist regime.
When in August 1942 an SS death squad (Einsatzgruppe D) within a few days systematically murdered 27,000 people in the Zmievskaya Balka massacre near Rostov, Spielrein and her two daughters were among the victims.
April 25, 1886 – Sigmund Freud opens his practice in two rented rooms at Rathausstrasse 7, Vienna.
May 8, 1886 – Atlanta pharmacist John Styth Pemberton begins selling his carbonated drink Coca-Cola, originally intended and advertised as a patent medicine for people suffering from “nervous prostration, irregularities of the stomach, bowels and kidneys, who require a nerve tonic and a pure, delightful diffusible stimulant”.
June 13, 1886 –The eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his renowned psychiatrist, Bernhard von Gudden, are found dead at the shore of Lake Starnberg after they went together on an evening walk.
Ludwig had been deposed a few days before; von Gudden had co-signed the official report declaring him mentally unstable and unfit to reign.
What exactly happened remains a mystery. The most plausible theory speculates that Ludwig strangled the psychiatrist, and then drowned himself.
February 27, 1888 – Birth date of Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, who around 1910 began to develop psychosynthesis as an interpretation of psychoanalysis that was wider and more holistic than Freud’s original vision.
Partly influenced by Jung, Assagioli found Freud too limited and concentrating too much on negative personality aspects. He claimed that while Freudian therapy looked mainly at “the basement of the building”, psychosynthesis could take the structure of the entire building into account.
Psychosynthesis still exists today as a distinct approach besides mainstream psychotherapy, but more as an alternative way for personal self-development than as an instrument for diagnosing and curing severe mental health problems.
October 8, 1888 – Birth date of German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer, who today is remembered mainly for his weird typology discerning different kinds of people.
While working as director of various university psychiatric clinics in the 1920s and 1930s, he developed the idea that there was a correlation between some basic body types and character types. Taken a step further, according to him this implied that there was a connection between body type and mental illnesses.
For example, Kretschmer thought that slender, small people were relatively susceptible to a timid, withdrawn kind of schizophrenia; obesity on the other hand would indicate a predisposition toward manic depression.
Of course today, you won’t find anyone who still believes this kind of thing. But still I wonder – would Kretschmer have seen too much Laurel and Hardy films?
April 6, 1889 – Birth date of famous Chilean poet (and educator, and diplomat, and feminist) Gabriela Mistral, pen name for Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. She was the only South-American woman who ever won a Nobel Prize in literature (1945).
She broke through as a poet in 1914 with her Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death). These poems about love, jealousy and rejoining after death were inspired by the suicide of her former lover Romelio Ureta.
Likewise her 1954 poetry bundle Lagar (Winepress) was partly inspired by the loss of her nephew Juan Miguel Godoy, who was like a son to her but had killed himself at 17.
Mistral herself died in 1957 (age 67) from cancer.
August 26, 1889 – In Britain, on this date children became legally protected by law.
The new 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act (soon known as “Children’s Charter”) not just outlawed using children as beggars, but also tried to protect them from ill-treatment at home. For the first time, police officers were now formally allowed to intervene in families where children were thought to be in physical danger.
Of course in the harsh reality of Victorian life, actual protection of children still had a long way to go.
July 29, 1890 – Painter Vincent van Gogh dies (age 37) in Southern France, two days after staggering back from the fields to his village inn with a gunshot wound in his chest.
There are wild speculations about what happened (accident, murder?) but most experts still agree it is most likely that in a bout of depression, van Gogh shot himself – something he had discussed with his doctor shortly before.
Some quote his brother (and faithful companion) Theo as having reported that van Gogh’s last words were “the sadness will last forever.”
August 20, 1890 – Birth date of H.P. Lovecraft, who would become one of the most influential horror writers ever. He often used his own dreams and nightmares as a source of inspiration.
During his life he remained fairly unknown; after his early death in 1937 it took until the 1950s before his work began to get the attention it deserved.
November 8, 1892 – Birth date of pioneering psychoanalyst Therese Benedek (born Friedmann). Originally from Hungary, she made a career in Germany. In 1936, when the Nazis made it impossible for Jewish psychiatrists to continue their work, she started a new and very successful career in the USA.
She published studies about depression, about lifelong personality development, and about the mother-child relationship – in 1949 she was the first to explicitly define that relationship as a “symbiosis” equally important for the mother’s psychological development as for that of the child.
Her best known book was Psychosexual Functions in Women (1952) about how hormonal changes during the sexual cycle influence the emotional reactions of women.
Even when over eighty years old and getting ever more deaf, she still kept working as a therapist. She died in 1977.
August 22, 1893 – Birth date of American writer, poet, and satirist Dorothy Parker (born Rothschildt) who became known for her sharp jokes, both in- and outside her work.
Parker survived three suicide attempts (she would die at 74 from a heart attack) and often wrote about suicide in a sarcastic, self-mocking way. I cannot resist quoting her:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramps.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
July 6, 1893 – French writer Guy de Maupassant, famous for his short stories, dies (age 42) at a Paris asylum where he had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt the year before.
Apart from his many works, Maupassant also left an epitaph he had written for himself: “I coveted everything, and took pleasure in nothing.”
November 6, 1893 – Mysterious, sudden death of the famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (age 53). This was nine days after the premiere of his 6th Symphony, “the Pathétique”.
Officially his death was attributed to an unusually abrupt case of cholera, caused by drinking contaminated water. But there are many indications that this cannot be true.
Several researchers suggest Tchaikovsky killed himself by taking arsenic; some speculate that he was severely depressed because he could not face the obvious fact that he was homosexual.
June 13, 1894 – Birth date of Leo Kanner, who in the 1930s would become the first specialized child psychiatrist. When it came to focusing on mental health problems in children, he was a true pioneer.
In 1930 he ran the first child psychiatry service in a hospital at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he would also found the first academic child psychiatry department. His 1935 textbook Child Psychiatry offered the first English-language overview of psychiatric problems in children.
In the 1940s (along with Hans Asperger, whose work was rediscovered later) Kanner also laid the basis for our modern understanding of autism in children.
June 23, 1894 – Birth date of Alfred Kinsey, a biologist who in 1947 founded the Indiana University Institute for Sex Research and became famous for his “Kinsey Reports”: the 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and the 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.
Both taboo-breaking books became instant bestsellers and are considered milestones in the gradual development towards more openness and tolerance regarding sexual practices and preferences.
September 2, 1894 – Birth date of Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth, mainly known for his classic 1932 Radetzky March novel.
But perhaps his very best work was the novella Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (“The Legend of the Holy Drinker”) about an alcohol-addicted vagrant who tries in vain to fight his drinking habit.
This was published posthumously in 1939 after Roth, in exile in Paris and a chronic alcoholist himself, had literally (and intentionally) drunk himself to death.
July 23, 1895 – This night, Sigmund Freud dreams about how Irma, a guest at his party, is unwell and has a strange rash in her mouth, and how he and some colleagues examine her at the spot to conclude that a wrong injection must have caused the symptoms.
Freud wrote down this particular dream, and would use it as the starting point for his famous 1899 book Die Traumdeutung (“The Interpretation of Dreams”).
November 14, 1895 – Birth date of Walter J. Freeman, who in the 1930s and 1940s became the most notorious American surgeon to practice lobotomy, the crude brain operation that was supposed to help psychiatric patients but often brought disastrous results.
This operation initially required drilling holes in the patient’s skull, but Freeman developed the “icepick lobotomy”: a metal pick was inserted into the corner of each eye-socket and then wiggled to destroy neural connections in the brain’s frontal lobe.
Freeman in 1941 helped perform the lobotomy on JFK’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, a well-known example of this operation ending in disaster: it left her with permanent mental and physical disabilities, such as incontinence and inability to speak.
When in 1967 one of Freeman’s lobotomy operations resulted in the patient dying of a cerebral hemorrhage, and it became clear that a few of his patients had died in the same way before, Freeman was banned from performing surgery.
August 9, 1896 – Birth date of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who developed a coherent view on how young children step-by-step develop themselves both socially and intellectually. His theories of cognitive development greatly influenced both child psychologists and education practices all over the world.
Basically, Piaget’s views contributed to the tendency of a more child-centered approach in education: the aim of stimulating children to become creative individuals rather than conforming adults.
August 10, 1897 – Felix Hoffmann, a chemist working for the Bayer pharmaceutical company, for the first time successfully synthesizes a stable form of acetylsalicylic acid. This would become one of the most popular pain killers ever.
Two years after Hoffmann’s discovery, Bayer began selling it under the name Aspirin, at first not yet in the form of pills, but as powder in a glass bottle.
August 11, 1897 – Birth date of American poet Louise Bogan. She wrote many wonderful, widely acclaimed poems while for most of her life (she died in 1970) she had to fight deep depressions.
In the 1930s, she was hospitalized twice with a diagnosis of depression with “obsessive and paranoid inclinations”. But she kept fighting. And writing.
To honor her, a brief quote wouldn’t do. Here is a link to her superb poem Medusa, about a frozen-in-time experience.
September 25, 1897 – Birth date of writer William Faulkner. Part of his famous 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury was about young Quentin Compson, who gradually sinks away in a deep depression, in the end killing himself.
Faulkner described this in a style reflecting the mental disintegration: the language itself disintegrating into one rambling, continuous stream of incoherent thoughts.
The resulting “depressed prose” may have helped him to get his Nobel Prize, but it is not easy to read.
October 18, 1897 – Birth date of Isabel Briggs Myers. Together with her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, in 1942 she developed a personality test that originally intended to help women find a wartime job best suited to their own personality.
Based on the 1921 personality theories of psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, the test measured different combinations of extraversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, rationality/feeling, and judging/feeling (resulting in 16 theoretical base personalities).
In the 1950s and 1960s, Briggs Myers further developed her formal Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Although some modern researchers question its validity, this MBTI is still widely used for personality assessment today.
March 23, 1900 – Birth date of German (internationally oriented) sociologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who would be active from the 1930s until his death in 1980.
Along with social philosophers Adorno and Habermas, Fromm belonged to the politically leftist theoretical Frankfurter Schule which for a time was very influential.
Fromm thought that we should accept and actively embrace the consequences of our own free will, and that being afraid of that freedom caused most of our inner psychological conflicts.
A quote from his 1955 book The Sane Society: “The danger of the future is that men may become robots. [...] Robots cannot live and remain sane.”
June 6, 1900 – Birth date of Manfred Joshua Sakel, the Austrian (later American) neurologist who developed the notorious insulin shock therapy. First used by him in 1933, it soon became popular and remained in widespread use with mentally ill patients until the mid-1960s, although research never really proved any long-term effectiveness.
The basic principle of Sakel’s therapy was somewhat similar to electroshock therapy. By giving his patients an intentional overdose of insulin, Sakel caused them to get violent convulsions, similar to an epileptic seizure. This often ended in coma.
While this procedure was thought to improve mental health, the side effects of insulin therapy far outweighed its supposed results. Sometimes it even caused a patient’s death. Today, the fact that for many years this therapy was blindly applied, is generally considered one of the less savory episodes in the history of psychiatry.
Sakel died in 1957, before people started to doubt the usefulness of insulin therapy.
January 8, 1902 – Birth date of psychologist Carl Rogers, who between the 1930s and 1980s became one of the key figures who shaped psychotherapy as we know it today.
Based on his theory of human personality and development, he developed his non-directive “person-centered” therapeutic approach, aimed at actively helping people to develop themselves.
Rogers was not just very influential with his views on human personality; he also tried to introduce better methods for actually evaluating the effectiveness of psychotherapy.
June 21, 1905 – Birth date of the French existentialist and marxist writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
In his best known novel, La Nausée (“Nausea”, 1938) the bored, lonely, self-isolating main character can be considered a typical case of depression – a depression which according to Sartre is rooted in the essential, unexplainable facts of life.
August 27, 1905 – Birth date of American writer Mary Jane Ward. Wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia after a mental breakdown, in 1941 she was treated for eight months in a mental hospital. She got the full menu, from psychoanalysis to electroshocks.
In 1946 she published her third novel: The Snake Pit, the story of her stay in the hospital. This book was a big success, leading to the prize-winning 1948 Hollywood movie The Snake Pit. The book and the movie contributed to reforms in psychiatric hospitals.
During the rest of her life, Ward was hospitalized three more times for mental problems. But she managed to write five more novels, two of them with psychiatric themes. She died in 1981 at the age of 75.
February 18, 1906 – Birth date of Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician interested in mental disorders among children. In a 1944 research article, he defined a specific form of mild autism he had observed in some school boys.
His work was forgotten at first, but it was rediscovered after his death: in the 1990s, the pattern he had described became known and formally recognized as “Asperger’s syndrome”. Today, as a diagnosis this has become somewhat controversial.
According to biographical sources, Asperger himself had in his own childhood clearly all the symptoms of the condition that would be named after him.
November 14, 1907 – Lacking self-confidence, feeling unhappy because you’re so different? So green, compared to the others? This is the birthday of cartoonist William Steig.
He was the one who in a 1990 picture book introduced the green-faced, unsure giant Shrek, since 2001 the main character in several films.
Steig had derived the name from Yiddish or German, where “Schreck” means “fear” or “fright”.
April 28, 1908 – Birth date of Oskar Schindler, who managed to save about 1200 people from death during the Nazi occupation of Poland: the exceptional story that was reconstructed in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List. Typical for a beginning depression is when you think immediately: why was there only one Schindler?
May 10, 1908 – First official celebration of Mother’s Day in the USA, on the initiative of Anna Jarvis. It soon became a great success, but for the rest of her life Jarvis would protest against what she considered abusive commercialization of her idea: for one thing, she wanted people to send personal letters instead of using printed greeting cards.
February 19, 1909 – In New York, Clifford Beers convenes the first meeting of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, which begins a movement to improve care for the mentally ill. The organization still exists today as Mental Health America.
In 1913, he would also found the Clifford Beers Clinic in New Haven: the first outpatient mental health clinic in the USA.
Beers had become involved in all this when as a patient (hospitalized with severe depression in 1900) he saw many instances of abuse and maltreatment in institutional mental health care. He described his own experiences in his book A Mind That Found Itself.
March 15, 1909 – On this day, Edward Payson Weston started from New York on a 4,300 miles walk that should get him to San Francisco in 100 days. Due to blizzards, he would make it in 105 days.
Weston had made several of such long-distance walks as a kind of sport (competing with others or to win a bet) but also to promote his ideal of walking as a healthy activity. According to him, automobiles were making people lazy and sedentary.
His walking career ended abruptly when in 1927 a New York taxi ran over him.
Still, his exploits may remind you that frequent walks can work as a kind of natural antidepressant. Even if you don’t go all the way, as Weston did.
July 3, 1909 – The producers of Koca Nola, which at the time was the third most popular cola drink in the USA (after Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola) are charged because an inspection by the Department of Agriculture had revealed that the drink contained actual cocaine (in spite of their ad slogan “Delicious and Dopeless”).
When you were a little tired or depressed, a glass of refreshing Koca Nola was much more invigorating than a cup of coffee. But at the trial, a witness of the Department of Agriculture testified that “drinkers of Koca Nola would soon acquire the cocaine habit and become wrecks.”
The court case resulted in a fine of only $100, but due to the publicity many people stopped buying Koca Nola. The company went bankrupt a year later.
August 21, 1909 – In the German harbor of Bremen, three prominent psychiatrists board the Norddeutsche Lloyd steamship George Washington: Sigmund Freud, Karl Jung and Sándor Ferenczi.
They were invited by Stanley Hall to give some lectures at Clark University. With this trip, they would present their modern views of psychoanalytic therapy in the Unites States.
Rumor has it that when the ship arrived in New York, Freud said to Jung: “They don’t realize that we are bringing them the plague…”
January 2, 1910 – Birth date of Charles Douglass, the technician who would single-handedly bring more jolliness into homes all over the world than any psychiatrist would ever accomplish.
From the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, Douglass had the monopoly on producing “laugh tracks” (fake laughter by a fake public) as background sound for TV shows.
With his unique invention the “laff box”, that could be played like a kind of organ, he could insert exactly the right kinds of laughter at the right moments.
June 2, 1910 – Birth date of psychiatrist Frederick Redlich. With co-author August Hollingshead, he was the first to thoroughly research how the social background of psychiatric patients influenced the diagnosis and the treatment they were given (Social class and mental illness, 1958).
June 19, 1910 – First celebration of Father’s Day, with a meeting organized by Sonora Smart Dodd in Spokane, whose father as a single parent had raised six children.
Intended as the counterpart of the Mother’s Day initiative by Anna Jarvis two years before, Father’s Day would also soon become commercialized in the same way as a gift occasion.
July 28, 1910 – Mileva Maric, wife of physicist Albert Einstein, gives birth to the couple’s second son: Eduard. He would prove to be an intelligent and talented boy, but at 20 he got psychical problems.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, since 1932 Eduard Einstein was frequently hospitalized in a Swiss psychiatric clinic, where he would remain permanently from 1948 to his death in 1965.
According to his older brother, what really ruined Eduard was the overuse of therapies with too heavy medication and especially the intensive use of electroshocks.
April 25, 1911 – Emilio Salgari (48) was the Italian writer of many adventure novels (pirate stories, pioneering science fiction, early Wild West). Around 1900, his books such as The Black Corsair were hugely popular all over the world.
On this day in 1911 he committed suicide – in the dramatic way of a Japanese seppuku ritual, using a sword like a samurai warrior. He had already attempted suicide the year before.
Twenty years before, his father also had killed himself. Just a few months before Salgari’s ostentatious suicide, his wife Aida had been committed to a mental hospital. And in 1933, one of his sons would kill himself too.
In his suicide note, Salgari asked his publisher to pay for his funeral, ending with “I salute you while I break my pen.”
September 20, 1911 – Birth date of prominent American psychiatrist Ralph Greenson (died 1979).
In World War II, he was one of the first to focus systematically on Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in soldiers returning from the battle fields. Later, he published much on using psychoanalysis with borderline patients.
Unfortunately, he became better known for his role as therapist of movie star Marilyn Monroe. In August 1962, he was the one who found her dead, and reported to the police.
February 4, 1912 – Depression often brings a dangerous underestimation of one’s own capabilities. But over-estimating them can have equally suicidal results.
Today, this was demonstrated by Paris tailor Franz Reichelt. He had organized a true media event to show his invention: an aviators’ safety suit with built-in parachute.
Many people watched and he was even filmed when (ignoring expert advice) he jumped from the Eiffel Tower, wearing the suit that had never been really tested.
The parachute failed to work and he smashed into the ground right in front of the horrified spectators. He did make the newspapers, though.
May 30, 1912 – Birth date of American biochemist Julius Axelrod, who in 1970 would share a Nobel Prize with two others for his groundbreaking research on how our brain handles neurotransmitters (such as dopamine).
In the late 1940s, Axelrod’s work contributed to the development of new painkillers: paracetamol, aka Tylenol.
In the 1950s, he laid the basis for developing medication in the MAOI and SSRI classes: without Axelrod’s research, antidepressant medication such as Prozac would not exist today.
If you wonder about his weird glasses: in the late 1930s when he still was a beginning lab assistant, an exploding ammonia bottle badly injured his left eye. He looked like a pirate ever since.
August 27, 1912 – Birth date of Ruth Cohn, who as a psychotherapist in the 1950s and 1960s developed theme-centered interaction (TCI), a kind of combined group therapy and group learning.
In her view this solved several problems in one stroke because in classic single-person therapy, as she put it, “the couch was to small” and because in classic group teaching the human, personal dimension was missing.
She originally introduced her TCI approach in the USA, but it became (and still is) much more popular in Europe.
As an educator Cohn was known for her terse remarks, such as “Don’t analyze in a burning house”.
July 19, 1913 – The British Parliament passes the Mental Deficiency Act 1913. This law was introduced because the existing one, the 1886 Idiots Act, was thought to be covering not enough deviant people.
So this 1913 act added two new categories: the “Feeble-minded Persons” and the “Moral Imbeciles”. Feeble-minded were those “whose weakness does not amount to imbecility, yet who require care, supervision, or control, for their protection or for the protection of others”. A Moral Imbecile was anyone “displaying mental weakness coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities, and on whom punishment has little or no deterrent effect”.
If these people “had been abandoned, neglected, guilty of a crime, in a state institution, habitually drunk” they could be legally locked away. In everyday life, this meant that forced institutionalization could also be applied easily to people whose deviant behavior was in fact caused by mental illnesses such as long-term deep depression.
In the interwar years, over 60,000 people (with very different problems) were placed in institutions under this law. It remained in effect until 1959.
September 27, 1913 – Birth date of Albert Ellis, who in the 1950s would become one of the most influential American psychotherapists ever with his concept of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
Profiling himself as a “rational therapist” he focused on having his clients actively understand and tackle their own irrational beliefs and behavior patterns. In his view, emotional problems are not primarily caused by external events, but rather by our own irrational and counterproductive ways of reacting to them.
An example of such a counterproductive attitude is the unfounded but all-pervading idea that one always has to perform well enough to win the approval and love of others.
Essential in therapy is therefore that we keep analyzing our own reactions and beliefs in a critical, logical manner; and that we keep trying to recondition ourselves in order to react in a more productive, less harmful way.
April 26, 1914 – Birth date of American-Jewish novelist Bernard Malamud (he died in 1986). I see him as one of those few authors whose stories retain a strange comforting quality, even (or maybe especially) when depression is lurking in the corners of our mind.
Somehow, Malamud managed to tackle very recognizable and heavy themes like guilt, shame, suffering, or the emptiness of our existence – and then making the whole lighter by adding humor or even complete absurdity to the mix.
His work still has the power to make you smile in spite of everything: the power to remind you that even in our bleakest moments, we should consider the possibility that life might be bearable after all.
Or, in the words of a well-known Malamud quote: “Life is a tragedy full of joy.”
May 9, 1914 – Birth date of Andrew Salter, the American psychologist who was an outspoken behaviorist and as such believed in the therapeutic value of simply conditioning people (often, by using hypnosis). He also used assertiveness training techniques before the term even existed.
Salter’s approach became very popular after in 1949 he published his book Conditioned Reflex Therapy.
He was one of the most fierce opponents of any form of Freudian psychotherapy; with his controversial 1952 book The Case Against Psychoanalysis he tried to dismiss it as unscientific.
December 2, 1915 – Birth date of New York psychoanalyst Nathalie Shainess, who became known for her brilliant 1984 book Sweet Suffering: Woman As Victim.
This still counts as the very best analysis of female masochism, especially in sexual relations but also applicable to life in general.
Do you as a woman keep wondering why you cling to a depressing pattern of trying to please others, at the cost of yourself? Then this well-written book is an eye-opener, a must-read.
Shainess died in 2009 (age 93). It really is a shame that so far, nowhere on Internet you can find a good biography of her.
June 26, 1916 – Birth date of Virginia Satir, who in the 1960s became a prominent American psychotherapist whose books would influence others all over the world. She stressed the importance of a sound family network for individual mental health; consequently she could treat families as a whole. Many consider her the first true family therapist.
According to Satir, the problem as perceived and presented by her clients often was not their core problem: the real problems rather stemming from the counterproductive way in which people try to cope with what they view as their problem.
She stressed that low self-esteem could be detrimental to oneself but also to one’s relationships (and thus to the others in that relationship). Therefore, her top priority was to restore her clients’ self-esteem by having them rediscover their own authentic feelings. This would enable people to recognize and overcoming restrictive routines in daily life, resulting in better in-family communication.
August 29, 1916 – Birth date of Austrian-American artist Edith Kramer, who in the 1950s would become one of the main pioneers of art therapy.
Basing her ideas (and practice) on the principles of Freudian psychoanalysis, she saw art as a way to overcome psychiatric problems. She did not just want to use some art activities as a component of therapy: according to her, art itself can be the therapy.
Kramer’s 1971 book Art as Therapy with Children became one of the standard works of art therapy.
October 16, 1916 – Activist nurse Margaret Sanger, worried about the large number of women who did not survive botched abortions, opens the first family planning and birth control clinic in the US.
Nine days later, she was arrested for breaking a law that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives.
Her subsequent trial and appeal generated much publicity that eventually helped the cause of preventing unwanted pregnancies by allowing contraception and better sexual education.
November 24, 1916 – While in Northern France the Battle of the Somme is raging, inventor Hiram Maxim (77) dies in his London home from pneumonia.
He had lived just long enough to witness how his invention, the Maxim machine gun, claimed millions of lives in the muddy trenches of World War I.
In the 1916 Battle of the Somme alone, 146,431 Allied and 164,055 German soldiers were killed.
November 30, 1916 – In the midst of World War I, Germany is shocked by the suicide of Dorrit Weixler (24) who at that time was a major star in German silent movies. She had starred in over 25 films since 1911.
In May 1916 she was performing live in a “Dorrit-Weixler-Week” in the Berlin Nollendorfplatz theater, when she suddenly collapsed on stage. The press speculated about her having “mental problems”.
Weixler canceled her next movie and landed in a “sanatorium” where it also became clear that she was heavily addicted to morphine. In that institution (where apparently the staff failed to care for her properly) this day she hanged herself.
July 1, 1917 – Birth date of psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who in 1951 began experiments to treat patients with hallucinogenic drugs (mescaline, LSD).
In 1957, he was the one who introduced the word “psychedelic” for such hallucinatory effects.
July 31, 1917 – Day Of The Dead Poets.
This day, both Irish poet Francis Ledwidge (29) and Welsh poet Hedd Wyn (30, actual name Ellis Evans) got killed as soldiers in the brutal and senseless World War I Battle of Passchendaele.
According to witnesses, Ledwidge was “blown to bits” by an exploding shell, while Wyn was hit by “a nosecap shell in his stomach.” Six weeks later, an important poetry prize won by Wyn was (in presence of British prime minister Lloyd George) ceremonially given to an empty, black-draped chair.
Both poets lie buried at the Artillery Wood Military Cemetery (Boezinge, Belgium). Wyn also has a statue in his home village Trawsfynydd, while for Ledwidge there is a memorial on the spot where he died.
Needless to say, thousands of other soldiers were killed in that same battle, too. These two just illustrate the horrible waste of war.
November 15, 1917 – Death (by natural causes, a stroke) of French sociologist Émile Durkheim. His 1897 book Le Suicide was the first systematic and not-moralistic study about suicide, and still counts as an early example of modern sociological research.
Durkheim defined four basic motives for suicide, and compared the incidence of suicide for different groups – men and women, Protestants and Catholics, people with and without children, etc.
His general conclusion was that two main factors in the environment were important: the social integration of individuals, and the strength of behavior-regulating moral rules.
May 13, 1918 – Birth date of American clinical psychologist Edwin S. Shneidman. In the 1940s he became a pioneering expert in suicide prevention, based on his systematic research of many suicides cases.
He also used his method of “psychological autopsy” (analyzing the past of someone who had committed suicide) to help family and friends to better understand that person’s decision.
Together with Norman Farberow and psychoanalyst Robert Litman, in 1958 Shneidman founded the innovative Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. In 1968 he founded the American Association of Suicidology and its research journal. He also wrote many books about suicide prevention.
Shneidman’s approach was much wider than the limited medical-biological perspective that sometimes prevails today: he understood the importance of social factors and the role of individual suffering, what he called “psychache”.
July 15, 1919 – Suicide of German chemist Hermann Emil Fischer (66), who in 1902 had won a Nobel prize for his work (fundamental research on things like the components of sugar).
In the same year 1902, Fischer and physician Josef von Mering had been the first to produce synthetic barbiturate. In 1904, pharmaceutic firm Bayer started to sell this as the drug Veronal.
Meant as a sleep-inducing drug, it soon was also used to tranquillize “nervous” mental health patients. Until it was replaced by better drugs in the 1950s, Veronal made many victims. A high dose could be lethal.
A few years before his death, Fischer had lost two of his three sons: one fallen as a soldier in the World War I trenches, a second one killing himself. The ensuing depression may have led to Fischer’s own suicide.
October 14, 1920 – Birth date of clinical psychiatrist Frank Ayd, one of the pioneers of modern medication use in psychiatric treatment (long retired, he died in 2008).
In 1951-1952 Ayd was the first in America to experiment with the new antipsychotic drug Thorazine (chlorpromazine); later he was among the first to try out various antidepressants.
He became an authority on the use of medication and in 1961 wrote the book Recognizing the depressed patient – with essentials of management and treatment.
February 6, 1921 – Another one in the category “weird suicides”. On this day, Thomas Bradford (a former athlete and actor in Detroit) opened the gas valve of his heater to kill himself for a higher cause.
He was convinced that life was just a preparation for the real spiritual life after death, and that spirits could communicate with the living. And he wanted to demonstrate it.
He had made careful arrangements to prove his point very clearly, once and for all. His helper, Ruth Doran, was set to receive his messages from the other world.
According to newspapers that picked up the curious case, some weeks after Bradford’s death Doran was still waiting to hear from him.
April 27, 1921 – Birth date of Austrian psychiatrist Erwin Ringel, one of the most important pioneers of suicide prevention efforts. In 1948, he helped establish the world’s first suicide prevention center (in Vienna).
In 1953, based on researching over 700 suicide attempts, he defined the presuicidal syndrome: the typical combination of a person’s options, behavior and fantasies (such as aggression turning inwards against oneself) that indicate suicide risk.
In 1960, Ringel was one of the three founders of the IASP (International Association for Suicide Prevention) which is active in over 50 countries today.
July 25, 1921 – Birth date of Paul Watzlawick, a psychologist and therapist who between 1960-1990 was very influential with his views on family therapy and, more in general, on depression and suicide.
Focusing on communication as an essential given, he thought that many psychical problems are generated by people’s own efforts to fix themselves emotionally (such as the inner contradictions of a “double bind” situation).
According to him, growing in interaction with others was much more important and effective than any counterproductive efforts trying to heal. Suicide, in his view, resulted from a mistaken belief that what you were seeking doesn’t exist: people should just try to grow.
My personal note: there are only a few mental health theorists who I myself don’t like at all. I’m afraid Watzlawick is one of them. I feel that all the abstract theoretical language of his grand “Interactional View” hides a core view that (when applied to family situations) is just banal, and (regarding suicide) fails to take depression seriously.
March 12, 1922 – Birth date of Jack Kerouac, the writer and poet who with his best known novel On the Road became the first to represent the “Beat Generation” as a forerunner of the 1960s hippie era. The book was written in 1951 but because of its explicitness remained unpublished. The first edition (1957) was in fact a censored one.
Kerouac is yet another example of a talented person combining great creativity with bouts of depression, and a self-destructive drugs and alcohol addiction.
In 1969, at age 47, he died suddenly from internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis, the fatal result of his heavy drinking.
May 15, 1923 – Arthur Gordon Webster, physics professor at Clark University, shoots himself through the head with a revolver he had bought some hours before.
Webster was a prominent physicist who was highly respected both as a theoretician and as an experimenter in the fields of acoustics and mechanics. He had been the founder of the American Physical Society.
His suicide note demonstrated the typical, distorted self-depreciation caused by depression: “For years I have been a failure – my research is worth nothing. Everyone else knows it. [...] Everything I have started has stalled. [...] I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you. Am sorry to make so much trouble.”
June 3, 1924 – Death of Jewish-Czech author Franz Kafka, famous for the way he expressed feelings of horror and alienation in his 1915 novel Die Verwandlung (“The Metamorphosis”), about an ordinary salesman who one day wakes up to find his body has changed into that of a huge, monstrous insect.
June 18, 1924 – Today just a random example of death by depression: Reuben Wanamaker (57), who since 1913 had been a judge in the state of Ohio’s Supreme Court.
Wanamaker had sought medical treatment for severe depression since 1923, which had not helped him (remember, modern antidepressant medication did not yet exist).
On June 18th, six days after entering the Columbus Mount Carmel hospital in a bid to have his depression treated more effectively, Wanamaker killed himself by jumping from a fourth story hospital window.
This case illustrates one of my own strong impressions that may still be valid today: when hospitalizing depression patients, the suicide risk appears to peak in the very first week after admission to the clinic.
June 20, 1925 – Death of the Viennese physician Josef Breuer. His documented 1880-1882 “therapy by talking” with troubled patient “Anna O.” (Bertha Pappenheimer) had inspired Sigmund Freud to begin developing psychoanalysis as a viable therapeutic method.
July 18, 1925 – One Adolf Hitler, leader of a small right-wing fringe party in Bavaria, publishes Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”): a rambling book full of racist and ultra-nationalist nonsense.
At the time, no one took it seriously.
October 22, 1925 – Birth date of singer-songwriter Dory Previn (Dorothy Langan). As a child, she suffered from maltreatment by her often depressed and sometimes psychotic and violent father.
After she herself had been hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital in 1965, and been treated with ECT (electroshocks) a few years later, she became a prime example of a musician who frequently dealt with mental health themes in a very personal way in her own work.
Her 1970 album On My Way To Where had songs about her troubled childhood and her stay in hospital; her 1972 album Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign was inspired by the 1932 suicide of Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle.
Previn remained active and creative until the mid-1990s; she died in 2012 at the age of 86.
June 3, 1926 – Birth date of American “beat generation” poet Allen Ginsberg, who in the 1950s became a leading voice in protesting against militarism, capitalism, conformity and sexual repression. Later in his life (from the 1970s to his death in 1997) he represented a Buddhist worldview.
Ginsberg became especially known for his 1955 epic poem Howl, that opened with the line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”
Howl was inspired by Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met in a mental institution while Solomon was undergoing electroshock treatments. One of the themes in Howl was addiction, and it ranted against the evil “Moloch” of modern society. At the time, many found the text shocking. It was temporarily banned because of obscene language.
For once, allow me (having had electroshock treatments myself) a personal comment. I find Ginsberg’s work essentially self-centered, narcissistic, self-pitying, blame-shifting, and almost unreadable (or rather unbearable) rubbish. Yes. I guess my judgment here must have been destroyed by madness.
July 8, 1926 – Birth date of Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (as one of the triplets Elisabeth, Erika and Eva Kübler).
As a beginning psychiatrist in the late 1950s, she found it appalling how at that time in American hospitals, terminal patients were often left to die alone. She became very involved in working with dying patients and their family.
In 1969 she published her influential book On Death and Dying. In that book she proposed her well-known “Stages of Grief”, outlining the pattern of how most people adapt to the loss of a loved one.
For a visual representation of this grief pattern, see the graph in my post Grief is Not Depression.
In my personal opinion, depression is indeed very different from grief. But some cases of loss-related depression might be defined as “being stuck in one of the phases of the Kübler-Ross model”.
September 6, 1926 – Birth date of Claus von Amsberg, who after his 1966 marriage with future Dutch Queen Beatrix would become a very popular member of the Dutch royal family. He was known for his aversion to formalities and restrictions.
Claus would also become one of the most prominent depression patients in the Netherlands. In 1982 he had to be briefly hospitalized because of severe depression; it took him several years before he more or less got over it.
Many people assumed his depressions had been worsened because his symbolic position as the Queen’s consort left him with almost no options to do the kind of work he wanted to do. After 1984, he got somewhat more meaningful functions in various national and international organizations.
Claus died in 2002 at the age of 76, not from the consequences of depression but from Parkinson’s disease.
May 1, 1927 – Birth date of Sokichi Saito, a Japanese psychiatrist who had bipolar depression.
Under the pen name Morio Kita, he wrote influential novels such as In the Corner of Night and Fog, and The House of Nire, with psychiatry as one of his main themes.
June 24, 1927 – The great Japanese short-stories writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa kills himself (age 35) with an overdose of barbiturates.
He did so because he feared he would share the fate of his mother, who had been put in an asylum because of “insanity”.
One of the most prestigious literary awards in Japan has been named after him: the Akutagawa Prize.
October 7, 1927 – Birth date of Scottish psychiatrist Ronald Laing, usually referred to as R.D. Laing. In the 1960s and 1970s, Laing’s many books would become one of the main sources of inspiration for the emerging “antipsychiatry” movement.
Laing was vehemently opposed to treating mental disorders as a just an illness, without taking cultural and social (especially family-related) aspects into account. Consequently, in many cases (like schizophrenia and psychosis) he criticized conventional diagnosis and even opposed the use of medication.
His ideas had a positive influence in sofar as they shook up traditional psychiatry, urging therapists to view their patients as persons rather than patients. However, when taken to an extreme by the antipsychiatry movement, in individual cases these ideas sometimes prevented an effective cure, doing more harm than good.
Laing himself suffered from alcoholism and depressions: to counteract his depression, he took recreational drugs. His personal life was a mess, with ten children by four women. He died in 1989, at 61. Looking back, one of his sons said “It was ironic that my father became well known as a family psychiatrist, when in the meantime he had nothing to do with his own family.”
Note: I guess I must apologize for failing to hide that Laing is not one of my favorite psychiatrists.
October 25, 1927 – Birth date of Lawrence Kohlberg. He was the eminent psychologist who managed to extend Piaget’s cognitive development views into the moral realm.
Based on experiments confronting children with moral dilemma’s, in the 1950s and 1960s he came to his ground-breaking insights on “stages of moral development”.
In 1987, suffering from severe depression, Kohlberg asked for a day of leave in the hospital where he was being treated, and drowned himself.
November 5, 1927 – In a cheap hotel room in New York, a 53-year-old man tries to shoot himself. The first bullet hits the wall, but the second one kills him. This was the tragic end of Marceline the Clown.
Between 1890-1915, Spanish-born Marceline Orbes had been one of the most popular vaudeville clowns in the world, performing in the London and New York Hippodromes.
In the 1920s, when the public began to turn to the movies, his star had declined until he was left without work, impoverished, lonely and deeply depressed.
At his burial (with a wreath sent by Charlie Chaplin) his ex-wife told a reporter: “I expected something like this.”
In 1916 the equally famous clown Frank Oakley, who as “Slivers” had been Marceline’s Hippodrome partner, had also killed himself.
March 24, 1928 – In the “nursing home” where she was supposed to recover from deep depression, English poet Charlotte Mew (58) finds a bottle of Lysol disinfectant and kills herself by drinking it.
In her youth, two of her siblings had landed in mental health institutions; she and her remaining sister had decided to never marry for fear of passing on mental instability to their children. Mew (who according to some may have been a “chaste lesbian”) indeed never married.
Some of Mew’s poetry, such as On the Asylum Road, was about mental illness. As a poet she bridged the gap between old-fashioned Victorian and Modernist poetry; important writers such as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf and Siegfried Sassoon were among her admirers.
September 3, 1928 – Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovers that a mold of the genus Penicillum has the effect of killing his laboratory cultures of bacteria. In fact, this had already been casually observed in the 1870s but back then no one had recognized it as important.
Fleming named the active substance “penicillin”. Concentrating upon his discovery, in the next years he found it difficult to produce in large quantities. It took until 1938-1944 before research teams developed methods to produce enough of it for medical use in the army. A way to make synthetic penicillin was found in 1957.
Thanks to penicillin and similar antibiotics, diseases and conditions that used to be fatal (such as syphilis, gangrene, tuberculosis) could be effectively cured, saving millions of lives. It was one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.
September 6, 1928 – Birth date of American author Robert M. Pirsig, who became famous for his 1974 philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
In the setting of a road trip, and with many reflective asides, the book tried to unravel the true meaning of life by exploring the central topic of “Quality”.
One autobiographical theme in the story was how ECT (electroshock therapy) can change one’s personality. In the 1960s, Pirsig had been treated with ECT for schizophrenic tendencies and clinical depression.
September 13, 1928 – Italian-Jewish writer Italo Svevo (pseudonym of Aron Ettore Schmitz) dies in hospital after a car accident.
When aware he was going to die, he asked people at his bedside for a cigarette, telling them this really would be his last one.
Trying to quit smoking had been an important theme in Svevo’s best known novel, the 1923 La Coscienza di Zeno (in English wrongly translated as “Confessions of Zeno”).
Zeno also was the first novel to be completely based on the insights and principles of Freudian psychoanalysis.
November 9, 1928 – Birth date of American poet Anne Sexton. In the 1950s and 1960s she became famous for her very personal poetry about depression, isolation, suicide and despair.
Although the diagnosis is not undisputed, it is generally assumed that she suffered from bipolar disorder.
Sexton survived multiple suicide attempts. In 1974, one of them was fatal.
June 12, 1929 – Birth date of Anne Frank, who as a young girl would not survive the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
But her war diary, full of hopes and dreams, made her an immortal icon of humanity in cruel times.
She had started writing it on her 13th birthday (June 12, 1942).
November 16, 1929 – Apart from depression suicides, we also have Depression Suicides: the many investors and bankers who jumped to their death in the wake of the October 1929 Wall Street stock market crash.
Did they? In reality, there was no such wave of suicides among Wall Street financiers. This popular story is just a myth. In fact there was only one stock-market-related suicide jump in 1929.
On this day, a few weeks after the stock market crash, ruined businessman George E. Cutler jumped from the 7th floor of a lawyers office at the corner of Wall Street. Landing on a parked car, he died instantly.
Somehow, this single dramatic jump created an urban myth that still lives on today.
May 5, 1930 – Opening date of the First International Congress on Mental Hygiene in Washington, DC. This was a huge week-long affair with over 3,000 participants from 41 countries. For the first time, experts of very different backgrounds (physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, policy makers) convened to discuss mental health topics.
From a present-day perspective, their interdisciplinary agenda really looked fairly modern: they talked about prevention, care and treatment – both in institutions and at home, including the role of the family, the community and other social factors.
Chairman was William Alanson White (photo), a prominent psychiatrist who earlier had presided the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychoanalytical Society.
If anything, this prestigious conference (they had US President Herbert Hoover figuring as “Honorary President”) may have boosted publicity and attention for mental health care.
September 19, 1931 – Geli Raubal, half-niece of Adolf Hitler who was living with him in his Munich apartment, kills herself using Hitler’s pistol.
Hitler, who had been possessively shielding her from the outside world for years, was deeply shaken by the suicide. He kept revering her for the rest of his life.
December 5, 1931 – Suffering from severe depression, well-known American poet Vachel Lindsay (52) kills himself by drinking a bottle of Lye (caustic soda).
He was a popular pioneer of “singing poetry”, written to be sung or chanted in an auditive performance; he often toured the country reciting his work.
His last words are reported to have been “They tried to get me, but I got them first!”
August 4, 1932 – American modernist painter Alfred Maurer (64) commits suicide by hanging himself. Possibly this had to do not just with depression by itself, but also with a persistent lack of recognition.
The story of Maurer’s life is that of a great artist clinging stubbornly to his own style. He had worked successfully in the Paris modern art scene, but in 1914 (the eve of World War I) returned to New York. There, he was way too far ahead of the times: only a few insiders understood and appreciated his work.
Today, paintings by Maurer can be seen in the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Art collection of the Smithsonian Institution, and many more museums.
September 12, 1932 – U.S. Patent No. 1,926,900 is granted to Earle Haas, a doctor in Denver, for his design of an internal “Catamenal Device” (“Monthly Device”). In his own words, this would be much more convenient (and hygienic) than the “rags” women used to apply.
He sold his patent rights for $32,000 to Gertrude Tenderich, who in 1936 began to sell Haas’ invention as Tampax tampons.
Although Haas (1888-1981) was important in making the lives of millions of women more comfortable, nowhere on Internet you’ll find a proper biography or even a photo of him.
September 18, 1932 – In Los Angeles, a hiker near the well-known HOLLYWOOD hillside sign (back then the huge letters read HOLLYWOODLAND) finds a shoe, a jacket, a purse with a suicide note and finally, a body.
The victim is actress Peg Entwistle (24), who had gone missing two days before. It looks like she had climbed a maintenance ladder to the top of the letter H, and jumped from there.
After a stage career Entwistle had just played in her first movie, but she was said to be disappointed because she had not been contracted right away for a next one.
Clearly there was more than just disappointment. Her brief suicide note exemplified the delusional self-depreciation that so often comes with deep depression:
“I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain.”
May 10, 1933 – In orchestrated gatherings in 34 German university towns, Nazi students burn “degenerate books”. On the Opernplatz in Berlin, around 25,000 books from the Humboldt University and the complete library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft are thrown into the flames.
They burned the works of left-wing authors such as Bebel, Brecht, Marx; of critical novelists and playwrights such as Kästner, Mann, Schnitzler; of “corrupting” foreign authors such as Hemingway, Keller, Wells; and of course everything written by Jews – with famous authors such as Heine, Werfel, Brod, Zweig.
In his speech at the Berlin pyre, propaganda minister Goebbels cried: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end! [...] Commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past!”
I hardly need to add here that books representing “Jewish psychiatry” were among the first to land in the fire, including all the works of Sigmund Freud.
July 14, 1933 – In a hotel in Palermo, Sicily, French poet and novelist Raymond Roussel (56) kills himself by taking an overdose of barbiturates – probably Veronal, which at the time was prescribed in cases of insomnia or anxiety.
Roussel was an eccentric both in his writing (intentionally incoherent and often difficult to read, he greatly influenced surrealists) and in his dandy lifestyle. A rich heir, he squandered most of his money: for example, he rarely wore the same clothes twice because of his germ phobia. Being a closet homosexual, he even hired women to publicly pose as his lover.
After a breakdown in his early twenties (1897) Roussel had sought help from the famous, pioneering French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. But he kept suffering from “nervous illness” all his life.
August 15, 1933 – Birth date of Stanley Milgram, who in 1961 as a young social psychologist would become world famous with his controversial Milgram Experiment at Yale University.
Milgram got his idea from the process of Nazi Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, who in many respects resembled a fairly normal citizen and claimed he had just been following orders.
Under the guise of a learning experiment, Milgram tested if average participants could be brought to punish others for their errors with increasingly strong and painful (possibly lethal) electrical shocks.
The outcome was that under pressure from authority, many participants obediently went on administering ever stronger shocks – even while their “pupil” (an actor in an adjoining room) started screaming, banged the wall, or fell silent.
Milgram’s conclusion was that indeed many people could be brought to just obey orders, even when it was clear to them they were hurting other people.
June 9, 1934 – Birth date of Donald Duck (his first appearance in a Disney cartoon).
Well-thumbed half-torn old Donald Duck magazines would become an obligatory item on psychiatry ward reading tables. But his antidepressant qualities remain disputed: some maintain that if you’re already depressed, a dose of Donald will only make matters worse.
December 11, 1934 – Alcoholist Bill Wilson (who also suffered from periodic depressions) has the vision that would make him one of the main founders of the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). From this day on, he remained sober.
Tragically, he remained addicted to tobacco, developing serious emphysema. In the 1960s he kept chain-smoking even while dependent on an oxygen tank; in 1971 he would die from the consequences.
When on his death bed he asked for a whiskey (the first in 37 years) he became angry when it was denied to him. I feel it was cruel not to allow him that final drink: he was entitled to it.
May 11, 1935 – Birth date of Ursula Levy, who as a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was hidden in a Catholic orphanage, and just like Anne Frank ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Levy survived. In 1947 (age 12) she emigrated to the USA, where she became an expert in psychiatric nursing. In the 1980s, she was one of the first to research how parents and teachers perceive depression in children.
November 12, 1935 – On this day, Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz performed the first “leucotomy” operation on a psychiatric patient, drilling two holes in the skull and injecting alcohol into the brain’s frontal lobes.
Leucotomy was an early variant of the notorious lobotomy that became popular in the 1940s, and it was equally dangerous. Primitive brain operations of this kind often had unexpected, devastating effects.
After the 1950s, when safer and more effective psychiatric medication became available, this kind of surgical last-resort solutions rapidly fell into disuse.
But in 1949, Moniz could still be awarded a Nobel prize for his work on leucotomy. That same year, a psychotic patient fired four shots at him, leaving him in a wheelchair until his death in 1955.
June 11, 1936 – Suicide of Robert E. Howard (30), a successful author of many fantasy and western pulp novels. He was the creator of the Conan the Barbarian character.
Howard shot himself right after attending to his mother’s deathbed, but he had been meticulously preparing his suicide for weeks and it is usually described as the result of his longtime suffering from severe and chronic depression.
In his typewriter he left a note quoting a poem by Viola Garvin:
All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire.
September 14, 1936 – Neuropsychiatrist Walter J. Freeman and neurosurgeon James W. Watts perform the first lobotomy operation in the United States. By 1951 over 18,600 American patients (most of them suffering from schizophrenia or suicidal depression) had been treated this way.
Lobotomy was an very crude treatment that basically meant destroying a part of the patient’s brain (frontal lobe connections) by wiggling a sharp icepick-like instrument inside it. Originally this required drilling a hole in the side of the skull; later it was inserted through a corner of the eye sockets.
This therapy was a gamble: many patients were severely invalided by it. A notorious example was Rosemary Kennedy (sister of the later president). A 1941 lobotomy meant to mitigate her mood swings left her with urinary incontinence and the mental age of a child, unable to speak, staring blankly at walls for the rest of her life.
After the mid-1950s, the advent of modern medication in psychiatry soon made an end to this almost-medieval horror procedure.
May 27, 1937 – Official opening of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic bridges of the world. It also is the world’s second most popular suicide spot.
With an estimated total of about 1,600 suicides, it comes right after the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China (which accounts for over 2,000 deaths). Thanks to camera surveillance some would-be jumpers can now be stopped, but effective total prevention has proven difficult.
Over the years, only 26 people are known to have survived the jump. One of them, Sarah Birnbaum, in 1988 jumped from the bridge again – this second time killing herself.
NOTE: there is some date confusion here because on the 27th, the bridge was opened for pedestrians. The next day (May 28, 1937) it was opened for regular car traffic.
June 30, 1937 – The city of London introduces the world’s first special emergency telephone number. You could now simply dial 999 (even from pay phones) to get immediate advice and a quick connection to ambulance, fire department or police services.
In due time, this concept would be adopted all over the world. The American 911 emergency number was introduced in 1968 by AT&T.
Worldwide, different countries today use numbers like 000, 108, 111, 112, 119, 911, the original 999 or other variations.
August 2, 1937 – The US Congress passes the “Marihuana Tax Act”.
By imposing a formal tax on any sales of marijuana and other cannabis-related products, the actual intention of this law was to make all informal sales of such products illegal.
September 21, 1937 – Official birth date of Gollum, who underneath all his wicked monomaniacal deviousness surely is one of the saddest, most piteous and forlorn figures in modern fantasy.
On this day in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien published the first edition of his story The Hobbit, introducing him to the world.
November 13, 1937 – Birth date of Joseph Fleiss, who as a professor of biostatistics in the 1970s became the first expert in assessing mental health statistics.
In 1974, together with Robert Spitzer, he irrefutably demonstrated that the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, then at edition 2) was not very reliable as a diagnostic tool.
Regarding the diagnosis of several categories, including clinical depression, they proved that different therapists (when using the DSM) did not come to an uniform diagnosis at all.
Fleiss died in 2003, so he did not live to see the DSM grow into its present, much more detailed but still often disputed edition 5.
July 26, 1938 – On the verge of committing suicide, seriously depressed John William Warde (26) balances for hours on a 17th floor window ledge of a New York hotel. Police and firemen try to get him back in, but (afraid he’ll jump before they get a hold on him) they don’t dare to intervene directly.
From the next window his sister is pleading with him to come back in, a psychiatrist tries to talk to him while giving him a drink with some tranquilizers dropped in, and finally a policeman keeps a conversation going with him for hours on end.
In the evening, after 14 hours on the ledge, while thousands of onlookers have gathered on the street corner, Warden takes the fatal plunge. Crashing through the hotel’s glass marquee, he falls to his death on the sidewalk.
The dramatic combination of suspense and desperation left such an impression, that in 1951 Fox made a full-length movie about it. Fourteen hours (originally titled The Man on the Ledge) did however provide a different ending: in the movie, Ward falls by accident and manages to grab a life-saving net.
November 16, 1938 – Albert Hofmann, a chemist in the laboratory of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, distills the first sample of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).
It took until 1943, when he tried it on himself, before he realized he had created a very powerful hallucinogenic drug. In 1947, Sandoz started selling it as Delysid.
In the 1950s and 1960s psychiatrists often used LSD as a therapy-enhancing drug – although in fact, it may have done their patients more harm than good.
May 4, 1939 – Birth date of Israeli writer Amos Oz, who in his autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002) looks back to the suicide of his depressed mother when he was a child of 12.
September 1, 1939 – Start of the “T4” euthanasia program in Nazi Germany. Led by Dr. Karl Brandt and others, it organized the systematic killing of handicapped people and mental hospital patients who were considered “a burden on the community of the German people”.
Although formally ended in 1941, this was continued until the end of the war. Over 270,000 people were killed: both adults and children. Many were gassed or starved to death.
The last “T4” victim was Richard Jenne, a four-year-old child labeled as a “feebleminded idiot”. On 29 May 1945, with the American occupation already in place, a nurse in the children’s ward of a Bavarian hospital routinely gave him a lethal injection. She later confessed she had killed at least 211 children.
September 21, 1939 – Famous psychotherapist Sigmund Freud (83, living in exile in London) asks his doctor, Max Schur, to keep a promise and help him make an end to his sufferings.
After many years of horrible surgical operations, the jaw cancer caused by Freud’s cigar addiction has become inoperable and too painful to bear. As he tells Schur: “Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense.”
His daughter Anna still wants to postpone a definitive decision, but Schur convinces her that her father’s time has come.
Freud dies two days later from an overdose of morphine given to him by Schur, in what essentially was a case of physician-assisted suicide.
December 29, 1939 – Feminist psychiatrist and activist Madeleine Pelletier (65) dies as patient in a mental hospital.
She had been locked in that asylum eight months before, after having been arrested for illegally practicing abortions.
Ironically, she had been the first French woman to work as an intern in state asylums, qualifying in 1906 as the first female psychiatrist in France.
February 7, 1940 – Americans parents and children flock to the movie theaters, eager to watch the new movie The Adventures of Pinocchio, Disney’s second full-length animation film that is released this day.
On this very same day, a few hours earlier, German troops in occupied Poland enter the ghetto of Zychlin (Lodz) and brutally kill hundreds of Jewish civilians right on the streets, including prominent members of the German-ordained “Jewish Council” and their entire families.
March 28, 1941 – Famous English writer and feminist Virginia Woolf (59) fills the pockets of her coat with stones and walks into the River Ouse, drowning herself.
She is remembered especially for her novels Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and her reflecting book A Room of One’s Own.
Woolf had suffered from periods of depression all her life; in her last note to her husband she thanked him for everything but said “I can’t fight any longer”.
Most experts today agree she was a victim of bipolar disorder. Lithium, which in her situation might have been effective medication, did not come into general use until about 1970.
April 24, 1941 – Curling up against a boulder on a remote hillside near the southern Swedish town of Alingsas, Swedish novelist and poet Karin Boye (40) kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. The place of her death is now an often-visited memorial.
Apart from her work, Boye was known for her left-wing anti-fascist and anti-stalinist stance, and for her openly lesbian lifestyle. Her friend Margot Hanel also committed suicide shortly after Karin’s death.
Karin’s works are still very well known in Sweden today. Many people can recite some of her lines: “Of course it hurts when buds burst. Why else would spring hesitate?”
June 1, 1941 – Retired German neurologist Hans Berger (68) hangs himself in the building of the University of Jena psychiatry and neurology clinic, which he had been leading until 1938.
He was the inventor of electroencephalography (EEG), the technique of recording subtle electrical waves in the brain. Today, this is a common procedure for measuring and interpreting brain activity.
Berger had applied this technology for the first time in 1924, but it took until about 1940 before it began to gain wider recognition as a useful diagnostic tool.
His suicide had not much to do with the war or the Nazi regime, as you might think. Berger had since long been suffering from serious depression.
September 30, 1941 – Suicide of Alice Silverthorne (42), nick name Silverspoon, best known as Alice de Janzé because of a brief marriage to a French Count. She shot herself just a week after a suicide attempt with an overdose of sleeping pills.
Alice was a beautiful millionaire heiress and socialite who had led a tumultuous life with many affairs, scandals (even being involved in two murder cases), drug addiction and several previous suicide attempts.
Always in the news and always surrounded by friends and admirers, essentially she remained a lonely, unhappy soul. Maybe in some respects, we might characterize her as the Paris Hilton of the 1920s and 1930s.
One of many Alice anecdotes is how one morning she flung open the window shutters of her house in Kenya and cried: “Oh my God, not another fucking beautiful day!”
She left three suicide notes, but they were never made public. We do know that one of her last wishes was that her friends would hold a cocktail party on her grave.
Recently, Alice’s tragic life story still inspired a book, a film, songs… and even a fashion collection.
October 23, 1941 – At times, somehow, I find it sad and depressing that two different events could happen on the very same day.
This was the day of the Odessa massacre: 19,000 Jewish civilians were herded into warehouses and shot (or burned alive). Another 20,000, among them many women and children, were taken to a nearby village and killed there in a similar way.
Meanwhile in still-neutral America, the main event of this day was the eagerly awaited release of Walt Disney’s full-color animated film Dumbo, about a big-eared flying baby elephant.
July 11, 1942 – Psychiatrist Irmfried Eberl is appointed the first commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp.
He would be the only physician to have commanded one of the death camps. Since 1939, he had actively participated in the Nazi “Euthanasia Program” (the mass killing of psychiatric patients).
After his arrest in 1948, he hanged himself.
September 23, 1942 – Prominent Vienna psychiatrist Margarete Hilferding, 71, dies in a German cattle wagon while being transported from Theresienstadt to the extermination camp Maly Trostinec, near Minsk.
As one of the first female psychoanalysts (cooperating with Freud, a close friend of Adler) between 1910-1940 she had been very important, especially in developing all kinds of help for women.
She had not just worked as a therapist, but also publicized and been active as a pioneer in many other fields such as sexual counseling, organizing birth control facilities, and much more.
October 29, 1942 – Birth date of American cult poet “d.a. levy” (Darryl Alfred Levy). He is remembered for his very associative-evocative free-form poems, especially in The North American Book of the Dead and Tombstone as a Lonely Charm.
Levy thought and talked about suicide obsessively. Therefore one of his friends kept giving him books, knowing that every time he’d want to finish his new book before actually leaving this world.
But in the long run even this trick didn’t work anymore: in November 1968, a few weeks after his 26th birthday, Levy shot himself.
December 2, 1942 – Mankind enters the Atomic Age: in the world’s first nuclear reactor, at the University of Chicago, scientist Enrico Fermi starts the first successful nuclear chain reaction.
In 1954, Fermi would die from stomach cancer, possibly caused by his nuclear research. Two graduate students who had been his assistants also died from cancer.
June 4, 1943 – Kermit Roosevelt (53), son of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, kills himself with a gunshot through the head. At the time he was stationed as an officer in Alaska. His cousin, current President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had given him the job in the hope this would help Kermit overcome his alcohol and depression problems.
Chronic and bipolar depression ran in Kermit’s family on the Roosevelt side, while his maternal grandfather had been an alcoholic. Kermit himself had suffered from both depression and alcoholism for most of his life.
The way his suicide was handled was typical for the taboos of the time. Officially, a heart attack was given as the cause of death. This was also what was told to his mother. Only years later the true story did come out.
August 14, 1943 – Haunted by depression, Swiss anorexia patient Lore Berger (21) kills herself by jumping from a water tower on the Bruderholz, a hill near Basel.
Shortly before her death she had written a novel, Der barmherzige Hügel (The Merciful Hill). In this book, published posthumously in 1944, the main character kills herself in the same way on the same location.
Forgotten for decades, in 1981 her book was rediscovered, republished, and translated into French and Italian. The same year it was filmed too, as Die Zeit ist böse (The Times Are Bad).
August 5, 1944 – Suicide in the military and among veterans is rightly recognized as a major problem nowadays. But we tend to forget that this problem has existed all along, and not just among front line soldiers.
On this day in 1944, US Navy Rear Admiral Don P. Moon shot himself with his service pistol. In June, he had for three weeks (almost nonstop) been coordinating the D-Day landings on Utah Beach, Normandy, from a ship close to the beach. He was slated for a similar command in the Southern France landings.
His tragic death was ascribed to “battle fatigue” – what we today would call “combat stress reaction” or, in more general terms, “posttraumatic stress disorder”.
October 10, 1944 – In the Auschwitz concentration camp (where doctor Mengele had been using gypsy children for his medical experiments) a batch of 800 gypsy children between the ages of 2 and 14 is brought in from Buchenwald.
The children are crammed into a gas chamber and gassed to death.
Their bodies are burned in Crematorium V, that would be destroyed three months later by SS troops trying to hide their crimes before the arrival of the Russian army.
April 30, 1945 – One suicide that was welcomed by many all over the world: Adolf Hitler puts a bullet through his head.
Years too late, unfortunately. If only he’d been depressed all along!
June 25, 1945 – Prominent psychiatrist Alexander H. Leighton gets wide attention by publishing a Time Magazine article titled Japs Are Human.
In his article, he pointed out that American citizens of Japanese descent ought to be considered (and treated as) normal human beings.
Apparently, near the end of World War II, people needed to be reminded of that.
August 24, 1945 – Death of Japanese actress Midori Naka (age 36). Eighteen days before, she had survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb inferno with only a few scratches. She’d taken a train back to Tokyo where, being a celebrity, she gave newspapers her eyewitness account of the bomb explosion.
After ten days, she fell ill and entered a hospital. Her hair fell out. She got blood transfusions and the care of the best doctors, but died a week later.
Naka was the very first person in the world whose cause of death was officially registered as “radiation poisoning”.
May 6, 1946 – Life magazine publishes the article Bedlam 1946 by Albert Q. Maisel, describing the terrible conditions (overcrowding, abuse, hunger, fettering, nakedness, exploitation, general neglect) in American state mental hospitals in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The article shocked the public: especially the photos (see example) that came with it. They almost looked like photos of the cruelties in Nazi concentration camps that had been exposed a year before. Eventually, this shock contributed to some improvement in American institutional mental health care.
But unfortunately, for a while this also lead people to view lobotomy operations as a better alternative. In the 1950s, these frontal brain lobe operations (that disastrously and irreversibly changed the patient’s personality and faculties) were often performed as a more “humane” and efficient way to deal with the mentally ill.
July 14, 1946 – Benjamin Spock publicizes his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. It immediately became a bestseller, ending up with more than 50 million copies in 40 languages all over the world.
With its new approach that was partly based on psychoanalytical principles, this book greatly contributed to a less formal and more open, affectionate attitude of parents towards their children.
July 8, 1947 – Airfield personnel at Roswell, New Mexico, report they found remnants of a mysterious “flying disk”. Within a day the debris turned out to be from an experimental weather balloon, but still the story would gain notoriety as “The Roswell UFO Incident”.
Over the years it grew into an elaborate conspiracy theory: some people actually believed the government was covering up contacts with aliens from outer space. As such, the Roswell flying saucer myth became a prime example of paranoid mass psychosis.
August 19, 1947 – The judges of the international Nuremberg Court give their verdict in the “Doctors’ Trial” against Nazi doctors who had conducted gruesome medical experiments with concentration camp prisoners.
Some of the accused had tried to defend themselves by saying there was no rule differentiating between legal and illegal research methods. Therefore, the verdict introduced the Nuremberg Code stating 10 essential criteria (consent, no harm, etc.) that ought to be met to allow any medical experiment with human beings.
The ten basic requirements defined in this Nuremberg Code have since become a formal part of law in many countries.
April 7, 1948 – In Geneva, the United Nations agency WHO (World Health Organization) makes its official start. “Health” was defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
Over the past decades, the WHO became best known for physical health activities such as the combat against contagious diseases (notably, its contribution to the successful eradication of smallpox, 1980). But it also covers the field of mental health.
“Mental Health” is defined by WHO as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.
On a practical level, the WHO is active in various countries (especially lower- and middle-income countries) to help them develop a more effective mental health care infrastructure.
July 5, 1948 – Official start date of the British National Health Service, which had been decided for with a 1946 law.
It would provide free basic hospital and doctor services, based not on some insurance system but paid by the government (so from taxes).
With all the recent discussions about “Obamacare”, it looks like Americans still need a little longer to agree on something like this.
April 15, 1949 – Official start date of NIMH, the United States National Institute of Mental Health. It was founded to initiate and fund research, as laid down in President Truman’s 1946 National Mental Health Act.
One of the reasons why this initiative was taken at that point in time, was the very large number of traumatized, mentally ill ex-soldiers right after World War II.
NIMH very quickly grew in the 1950s. With a current budget of $1.5 billion, today it is the largest mental health research organization in the world.
Examples of groundbreaking research funded by NIMH: the first SAD (seasonal depression) research in the 1980s; schizophrenia research combining the behavioral and neurological approaches; and the systematical development of the cognitive method in psychotherapy.
May 21, 1949 – Exiled German novelist Klaus Mann (42) kills himself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
When trying to explain his suicide, most biographers tend to mention his homosexuality (which was not socially acceptable at the time) or his inability to overcome a heroin addiction.
Mann was a very productive writer. Today he is best remembered for his sixth novel, Mephisto (1936), about an ambitious actor getting morally corrupted by the Nazi regime. In 1981, István Svabó made an absolutely wonderful movie based on this book.
Suicide had already been a theme in Mann’s 1937 novella Vergittertes Fenster, about the Bavarian “mad king” Ludwig II who in 1886 had killed himself.
January 7, 1950 – In the early morning a fire breaks out and spreads rapidly over two floors of the women’s psychiatric ward of Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa.
As was fairly normal in psychiatric hospitals in those days, the building’s windows were barred and the patients had been locked in their rooms for the night.
Trapped in flames and smoke, they now had no way to escape. Eyewitnesses told how they heard them screaming while firemen tried to get to them.
Of the 65 psychiatric patients in the building, 40 women (and one attendant) did not survive this disaster.
April 14, 1950 – In a mental health “sanitarium” in Beacon, NY, Frances Ford Seymour (Frances Fonda) kills herself by cutting her throat. This day was her 42nd birthday.
She was the second wife of actor Henry Fonda and the mother of 12-year-old Jane Fonda. She left a note saying “I am sorry, but this is the best way out.”
That same evening Henry Fonda, having been informed of his wife’s death, appeared as scheduled for his performance in a Broadway play.
In 2005, actress Jane Fonda dedicated her book My Life So Far to her mother, telling how as a child she’d failed to fully understand her mother’s tragic life and death.
October 2, 1950 – First appearance of the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz: it would become one of the most popular comics ever, running for almost 50 years.
The main character, Charlie Brown, was a typical example of a failure-prone kid with serious self-doubts and insecurities. But he also personified hope and determination: although he consistently kept failing (playing ball, flying a kite) he never gave up trying.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s dog Snoopy would try to make sense of his own doggy life by retreating into a world made up of grandiose fantasies.
December 11, 1950 – In the lab of French pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc, chemist Paul Charpentier (photo) synthesizes a new drug, chlorpromazine, that would become known as Thorazine.
It was meant to counteract hypersensitive bodily reactions, but in the next couple of years it became clear that Thorazine allowed patients with severe mental problems to function much better again: it had a major antipsychotic effect.
Very soon this new medication was used widely. After 1954, Thorazine in many cases successfully replaced the ECT (electroshocks) and the crude lobotomy (brain operations) that had been used on a large scale before.
This was the first of a generation of more effective drugs in psychiatry. Thanks to this breakthrough, in 1965 there were 20% less patients in American mental hospitals than there had been in 1955.
In the 1960s Thorazine was by far the most used psychiatric medication worldwide; later it was largely replaced by other drugs that had less side effects.
January 10, 1951 & January 10, 1961 – the 10th of January appears to be the day of reckoning for brilliant but heavily addicted writers.
On this date in 1951, novelist Sinclair Lewis (65) died from the consequences of a lifetime of alcoholism.
On this same date in 1961, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett (66) died from the consequences of a lifetime of chain-smoking.
August 28, 1951 – Actor Robert Walker (32) who earlier that year had starred in the Hitchcock thriller Strangers on a Train, dies by what probably was a careless action of his psychiatrist.
In 1948-1949 Walker had spent half a year in a mental hospital for intensive daily psychoanalysis sessions. It had helped resolve his mental problems, but had not cured his alcohol addiction.
This evening, Walker’s psychiatrist Frederick Hacker gave him a large dose of the strong sedative Amytal (amobarbital), injecting it without checking first if his patient had been drinking. Unfortunately, Walker had.
The combination of a lot of alcohol with a maximum dose of Amytal proved lethal. Walker stopped breathing, and all frantic efforts to revive him failed.
March 5, 1953 – The death of ruthless, paranoid Soviet-Russian dictator Joseph Stalin brings a wave of relief all over the world. Responsible for the killing of millions of people, he had ruled by cold violence and shivering fear.
This had worked so well that at the time of his death, more statues had been erected of Stalin than of any other living person in the world.
Of course most Stalin statues have since disappeared without a trace. However, strange as it may seem, this one on his grave will certainly draw some revering visitors today.
November 2, 1953 – The British Samaritans suicide hotline gets its first call for help. The initiative was named “Samaritans” by a newspaper journalist some weeks later, and the name stuck.
Founded as a volunteer-driven organization by the Anglican priest Chad Varah, it was the first 24-hour suicide hotline in Britain.
Initially it was located in the crypt of his church, but he distinctly meant it to be a non-religious hotline for anyone contemplating suicide.
The organization quickly grew and today has branches in other countries as well. It still works with volunteers, but over the years its goal became more general: offering emotional support in any kind of desperate situation.
November 27, 1953 – American playwright and Nobel prize winner Eugene O’Neill (65), who had long been suffering from depressions, alcoholism, and other illnesses, dies in his Boston hotel room from the consequences of a rare neurological disease.
His whispered last words were: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”
O’Neill had two sons who both also struggled with addictions and depression; his first son had committed suicide in 1950 (three years before) and his younger son would kill himself in 1977.
April 21, 1954 – Death of the brilliant American mathematician and logician Emil Leon Post.
Several elements of his innovative theoretical work (about things like recursive processes) were comparable to the work of his better known British counterpart Alan Turing. It contributed to the later development of modern computer programming.
Post suffered from clinical depression and was being treated for that with ECT (electroshock treatments). This day, he died of a heart attack which was triggered by the electroshock treatment.
June 7, 1954 – Famous British mathematician and pioneering computer expert Alan Turing (41) kills himself by taking the poison cyanide. He is found the next day by his house cleaner.
Turing, a homosexual, had been convicted in 1952 for having an affair with another man (“gross indecency”). At that time, based on an 1885 law, homosexual acts were still illegal in the United Kingdom.
As an alternative to prison, he was forced to accept “chemical castration” by injections with female hormones. The fact that this rendered him impotent may have contributed to his fatal depression.
In 2009, more than 50 years after his death, the British government formally apologized for the horrible way Turing was treated.
September 17, 1954 – Publishing date of William Golding‘s novel Lord of the Flies, about a group of young English boys stranded on an uninhabited island.
It tells the gruesome story of how their efforts to organize themselves quickly degenerate into fear, superstition, power struggles, and brutal violence.
The book soon became seen as a prime example of a very pessimistic view on human nature (and civilization).
October 5, 1954 – Nashville journalist John Seigenthaler makes the headlines himself. He had been trying to talk to Gene Williams, a suicidal man on the verge of jumping from a 100 feet high bridge into the Cumberland River.
When Williams blurted out “So long, God forgive me” and let go, Seigenthaler managed to grab him by his collar and hold on until a policeman helped to yank the struggling man back up again.
At that point, Williams is said to have snapped at Seigenthaler: “I’ll never forgive you!”
April 13, 1955 – Tangled in a web of complicated bisexual relationships, chronic depression, and both alcohol and morphine addiction, German movie star Sybille Schmitz (45) kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She had made several suicide attempts before, and been committed to a psychiatric clinic because of that.
In her last movie role, less than two years before, Schmitz had played the role of a woman who killed herself.
After her death, she kept fascinating people. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s prize-winning 1982 art house movie Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss actually was about Schmitz.
July 17, 1955 – Official opening of the first Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California.
Personally I’ve always found such parks with their artificial happiness atmosphere an alienating and outright depressing experience – but history has proven that millions of people feel otherwise.
July 21, 1955 – American movie actress Eve Miller is found in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor, having attempted suicide by stabbing herself. It takes hours of surgery to save her life.
Miller would die in 1973 – by suicide.
October 5, 1956 – In Berlin, the very first suicide hotline in Germany opens as a private, church-supported initiative using the home line of the Würziger family. After just one month of almost nonstop calls, they already need to relocate to a rented office.
Subsidized by local government and churches, working with many trained volunteers, it still exists today as Telefonseelsorge Berlin: a general crisis line not just for the depressed and suicidal, but also for people with acute problems such as a broken relation, grief or loneliness.
The present manager of the hotline, psychologist Jürgen Hesse, states: “Still, to be clear about this, at least once every day someone calls who already took the pills or opened the window, so one who is right at the brink of a suicidal action or even in the middle of it, so that we perhaps are the last people they talk to.”
October 1, 1957 – The German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal launches a new sedative, Contergan, based on Thalidomide and better known under the name Softenon.
This drug would turn out one of the worst medication disasters ever. When used by pregnant women, it caused children to be born with terrible birth defects such as missing limbs or worse.
Before it was withdrawn in 1961, Softenon caused the birth of at least 10,000 malformed children, of whom about 50% were so badly affected that they did not even have a chance to survive.
November 17, 1958 – Suicide of Yutaka Taniyama (31), a brilliant Japanese mathematician. His death is a random example of a suicide triggering another suicide.
Taniyama left a note saying sorry for his suicide, and expressing the hope it would not be too much of a blow to others.
A month later, his girlfriend Misako Suzuki also killed herself, leaving a note saying that she had no other option but to join him in death.
March 17, 1959 – In Tbilisi, capital of communist-ruled Georgia, famous poet Galaktion Tabidze (66) jumps to his death from a window of the psychiatric clinic where he was being kept because of his depressions and alcoholism.
His song-like poetry had often expressed sadness and isolation. Still, to what extent was it depression that killed him?
Tabidze had been cruelly persecuted (probably just because of his popularity). His wife and several of his friends had not survived the Stalinist terror.
So in his case, it was easy to blame others: after the fall of the communist regime, the Georgian church officially absolved him from the mortal sin of suicide.
Which leaves me with a question: shouldn’t the same kind of understanding be extended to all victims of depression?
September 9, 1959 – The FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) officially approves the use of the antipsychotic medication Permitil. The producer, German pharmaceutical firm Schering, can now begin to sell it.
This was one of the first antipsychotic “calm down” medicines that was based on fluphenazine. Also known under various other names such as Prolixin (photo) or Modecate, this type of medication would often be used in cases of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and over-agitation in general.
Interestingly, researchers today still don’t know exactly how such a fluphenazine-based antipsychotic works. It will block or mitigate the effects of the dopamine neurotransmitter, but why this happens remains unclear.
October 21, 1959 – Botched suicide: an American guest slashes his wrists in his room in the Hotel Berlin in Moscow. His KGB-assigned sightseeing guide, Rima Shirokova, finds the unconscious man and has him rushed to the Botkinskaya Hospital.
His life was saved and for about a week, they kept him under observation in the psychiatry ward. He soon began to complain about the hospital food.
If this troubled man – Lee Harvey Oswald – had not survived his suicide attempt, then four years later President John F. Kennedy would have returned from Dallas alive.
November 20, 1959 – The United Nations General Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child , proclaiming the equal rights of children in regard to upbringing, education, security, and physical and mental development: without any kind of discrimination.
It took 30 years (until 1989) before this declaration became a “Convention”, formally ratified as a part of international law by most countries (but not the USA).
And if we, just for example, think of the countries where girls are discriminated in education, it will be clear that in daily life this declaration still is fairly powerless.
February 24, 1960 – The FDA (American Food and Drug Administration) allows pharmaceutical company Roche to begin selling a new kind of medicine that could reduce anxiety and tension: Librium.
Librium was the very first synthetic drug of the benzodiazepine variety. It had been discovered more or less by accident in 1956 by Roche’s chemical researcher Leo Sternbach.
Librium immediately proved to be a commercial success, but Sternbach was already working on an improved version. This was Valium, released in 1963 and soon one of the best selling drugs ever.
June 5, 1960 – In an official ceremony, the cornerstone is laid for the newly-built Institute of Mental Health in Belgrade, capital of communist Yugoslavia (today: Serbia).
This was to be the very first psychiatric hospital in the entire Balkan region: before the 1960s, no such institution existed there.
July 2, 1961 – Writer Ernest Hemingway, who in 1954 got the Nobel Prize in Literature, takes his gun and kills himself.
A few months before he’d been treated with electroshocks – evidently, that had not helped him.
January 10, 1961 & January 10, 1951 – the 10th of January appears to be the day of reckoning for brilliant but heavily addicted writers.
On this date in 1961, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett (66) died from the consequences of a lifetime of chain-smoking.
On this same date in 1951, novelist Sinclair Lewis (65) died from the consequences of a lifetime of alcoholism.
March 9, 1961 – The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) formally approves Enovid, the first effective contraceptive pill. Pharmaceutical company Searle & Co. began selling it a few months later.
The drug had been developed initially for treating menstrual disorders; but since the mid-1950s several people had also been researching other uses for what at the time was called “synthetic hormones”.
One of them was dr. Edris Rice-Wray Carson (photo) who in 1956 in Puerto Rico ran the first large-scale trial to test its usability as a contraceptive.
August 3, 1961 – Until 1961, in England and Wales it legally still was a crime to commit (or attempt) suicide. With the formal “Royal Assent” on this day a new Suicide Act was ratified. Basically, this 1961 law is still valid today.
The new law was of course based on the insight that punishing suicide attempts does not at all help to prevent them. Therefore it stated that suicide would “cease to be a crime”.
Importantly, the new law also stated explicitly that anyone who “aids, abets, counsels or procures” someone else’s suicide attempt, would remain punishable with up to 14 years in prison.
September 9, 1961 – In the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow, a woman (L.A. Smirnova) broke the glass of the sarcophagus with a stone wrapped in a handkerchief, spat at Lenin’s embalmed body, and exclaimed “Take that, you bastard!”
The incident was hushed up at the time. We only know about it from a secret service report that was declassified recently.
Smirnova’s fate is unknown. Under Stalin she might have been shot, but as this was the Khrushchev era, she probably ended up locked away in a psychiatric institution.
September 27, 1961 – Death of poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) who in the 1920s and 1930s had been remarkable in openly expressing her bisexuality. Years after her death, she was rediscovered as a kind of icon in the gay rights and feminist movements.
Having been one of Sigmund Freud’s patients in the 1930s, Doolittle left an extensive memoir Tribute to Freud describing her personal experiences with Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy.
February 17, 1962 – In Rome, where she was filming Cleopatra with Richard Burton, actress Elizabeth Taylor attempts suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates (Seconal sleeping pills).
She was rushed to the Salvator Mundi hospital, where she survived: a lucky escape.
20th Century Fox promptly issued a cover story, telling the press that Taylor had become seriously ill from food poisoning. Oh yes, that horrible Italian spaghetti!
August 5, 1962 – Movie star Marilyn Monroe is found dead at her home.
She appeared to have taken an overdose of barbiturates (strong sedative medication, sold under the brand name Nembutal).
February 11, 1963 – Poet Sylvia Plath (30), struggling with chronic depressions and marriage difficulties, finally kills herself. Finally: this was certainly not her first attempt.
Just a month before, her shocking (to some, including her mother) and groundbreaking semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar had been published.
This very personal, original and realistic book certainly helped to put mental illness on the map – a success that Plath did not live to see.
Should you want to read, well, skim The Bell Jar in eight minutes, see my excerpt-by-quotes here.
November 4, 1963 – Birth date of Scottish child singer Lena Zavaroni, who at the age of 10 would become the youngest singer ever to make it to the UK Albums Chart Top Ten.
Three years later she began to show clear signs of anorexia, and at 15 she also developed severe clinical depression. Both kept tormenting her for the rest of her tragic life.
Zavaroni continued to perform but in the 1990s, after some non-effective ECT treatments (electroshocks) and a suicide attempt, her depression became so unbearable that she begged for a more drastic operation.
In September 1999 (age 35) she underwent a “pioneering psychosurgical operation” that amounted to a modern version of the old, notorious lobotomy surgical brain operations. This operation was performed even though Zavaroni was seriously weakened by her anorexia.
For some days afterwards she appeared to recover, but three weeks after the operation she died from complications (infection, pneumonia).
November 15, 1963 – Pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche gets the formal permission from the FDA (American Food and Drug Administration) to start selling a new benzodiazepine tranquillizer: Valium.
Developed by company researcher Leo Sternbach, this synthetic drug was much stronger than the similar Librium that had been introduced three years before.
Valium soon became immensely popular: from 1969 to 1982 it was the best selling prescription drug in America. Its use played a key role in the novel Valley of the Dolls; the Rolling Stones sang about it in Mothers Little Helper.
It began to lose popularity when its many negative effects became more clear. One of the most dangerous effects was that Valium could in fact worsen a suicidal depression. Already in 1970, a study cited three actual suicides in a research control group where patients did not get antidepressants to counteract this Valium effect.
December 5, 1963 – In his Boston apartment, the reclusive eccentric Arthur Crew Inman (68) shoots himself because he can no longer bear the noise of the construction of the nearby Prudential Tower.
Inman was a rich heir who had wanted to become a poet, but had been suffering from increasing problems since a mental breakdown at the age of 21. During the rest of his life he had tried to kill himself several times.
He lived in a darkened and soundproofed apartment, where he occupied himself with writing a uniquely detailed diary: 155 handwritten volumes detailing his life and that of some of his guests, from 1919 to 1963, in 17 million words. In 1985, a Harvard literature professor would publish an abridged two-volume edition of this remarkable document.
Specialists today think that Inman suffered from some brain damage in his temporal lobe, which can cause oversensitivity to external stimuli, triggering not just incidental seizures but also depression.
January 11, 1964 – Luther Terry, the US Surgeon General, publishes the report Smoking and Health. It clearly states that evidence shows cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.
Terry’s action meant that for the very first time, the US government officially warned about the health risks of smoking.
The report lead to a 1965 act which mandated the printing of the Surgeon General’s health warning on cigarette packages.
October 27, 1964 – New York avant-garde dancer Fred Herko (28) was a member of the drug-addicted, self-obsessed, fast-living crowd around artist Andy Warhol. He had danced in several of Warhol’s early films.
This day, in a friend’s loft, a small group watched him dance naked to classical Mozart music. They suspected something was not quite right, but still they just watched. At the music’s finale, Herko danced out of the open window, falling from the sixth floor to his death.
The story goes that when Warhol heard about this, all he said was “I wish Freddy had told us about his plans; we could have filmed it.”
Now why commemorate Herko here? For his narcissism, his drug-induced insanity, or the shocking indifference of his friends? Maybe because he demonstrated that a stylish, theatrical suicide still can make a pointless death.
May 25, 1965 – Ethel du Pont (49, former wife of President Roosevelt’s son Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr.) hangs herself in her bathroom with the belt of her dressing gown. She had mentioned suicide several times before and was “under psychiatric care” for her depressions.
In the 1930s, as a wealthy heiress from the Du Pont family, she had been a well-known socialite. In 1937 her marriage with the President’s son had been a major event, with the couple being featured on the cover of Time Magazine. After their divorce in 1949 she had married lawyer Benjamin Warren.
Following Ethel’s suicide, the rich Du Pont family established the Harvard Medical School Ethel du Pont-Warren Fellowship Award to specifically support psychiatric research.
July 30, 1965 – US President Lyndon Johnson signs the Social Security Act that launches the social health insurance programs Medicare (for the elderly and disabled) and Medicaid (for some low-income groups).
Because of their qualification restrictions and other limitations, these programs kept lagging far behind the level of social health security in most other Western countries in the 1950s and 1960s. But of course as a little, it was better than nothing.
August 1, 1965 – On this date, after three years of pressure by the Royal College of Physicians pointing out the health problems related to smoking, television commercials for cigarettes were banned in Britain.
A similar ban would be introduced in the USA in January 1971, although until 1986 this still allowed airing “smokeless tobacco ads”.
October 6, 1966 – The strong hallucinogenic drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) becomes illegal in California. Within the next two years, it would be banned in most parts of the world.
This marked the end of a brief period in the 1950s and early 1960s when, because of perceived benefits of its psychedelic effects, LSD had often been applied as a drug during psychotherapeutic sessions.
It had, for example, been given to movie star Cary Grant as a routine part of his psychotherapeutic treatment.
January 12, 1967 – Retired Californian psychology professor Dr. James Bedford (73) dies from kidney cancer.
A few hours later, he becomes the first deceased human to be frozen with the intention of having him revived and cured by more advanced scientists in the future.
Today, his body still remains preserved in a cylinder cooled by liquid hydrogen (-200 ℃, -328 ℉). A more advanced version of what Egyptian embalmers tried to do with pharaoh Tutankhamen?
Most scientists consider it equally naive. They think that the applied freezing method will have caused irreversible damage, for example in brain cells.
April 12, 1967 – The American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) formally approves the antipsychotic drug Haloperidol, allowing it to be sold under the brand name Haldol.
This drug had been discovered in 1958 by Belgian pharmaceutical researcher Paul Janssen (photo). With its strong sedating effects, it was meant to be used in cases of schizophrenia, psychosis, and delirium.
Haldol has become notorious because of its inappropriate use by government officials. In the late 1960s, it was used in the USA to sedate black equal-rights activists who were considered too angry or violent. In the 1970s, it was used in the Soviet Union to break the resistance of political dissidents.
Between 2002-2008 the American ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was still using Haldol to sedate illegal immigrants during their deportation.
May 12, 1967 – First release of the impressive song Manic Depression by the great guitarist Jimi Hendrix (on his album Are You Experienced). The song was soon covered by many other artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Styx, Blood Sweat & Tears and Tanya Donelly. Hendrix would die in 1970 from a sleeping pills overdose.
March 26, 1969 – Suicides abound in March, or so it looks like. Maybe this has something to do with March being at the end of a long dark stretch of winter?
On this day in 1969, talented, funny, original but unpublished New Orleans novelist John Kennedy Toole (31) killed himself by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into his car.
His mother kept trying to get his two books published. In 1980 A Confederacy of Dunces finally appeared in print; in 1981 Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
April 29, 1969 – In Soviet Russia, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov introduces a formal policy to have political dissenters diagnosed (with the cooperation of psychiatrists) as psychiatric patients, so they could without any process be locked up for involuntary “treatment” in special “mental institutions”. They kept doing this until in the 1980s.
June 22, 1969 – Actress and singer Judy Garland dies (age 47) from an overdose of Seconal, a barbiturate-based sedative.
Among the many more people who died from a suicidal or accidental barbiturates overdose were evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1944), movie actress Carole Landis (1948), blues singer Dinah Washington (1963), journalist Dorothy Kilgallen (1965), Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein (1967), guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1970), actor Charles Boyer (1978), R&B singer Phyllis Hyman (1995), Iranian princess Leila Pahlavi (2001).
Verdict: we cannot recommend this stuff.
July 8, 1969 – At her home in Mosman (Sydney) Australian writer Charmian Clift, 45, commits suicide with an overdose of barbiturate sleeping pills.
Clift had written several novels and non-fiction works, one of her most popular books being Mermaid Singing (1956).
Having lived for many years in Greece and the UK, she was initially better known in England and the USA than in Australia: in her own country, she rose to full recognition only after her death.
The essay-like columns she had written for Sydney and Melbourne newspapers were bundled into books posthumously.
September 2, 1969 – Actress Sue Hamilton (23, actual name Sue Levitt) commits suicide by shooting herself in the chest. Contracted by MGM after a few minor parts in Beach Party films, she had just been embarking upon a movie career.
In 1965 she had jumpstarted that career by posing (under the name Sue Williams) in Playboy. She was one of the most petite Playboy models ever with a height of just 4′ 11″ (1.50 m), and the first Playboy model with breast implants.
Although not an anorexic, Hamilton was truly obsessed with having a perfect figure. During a lunch interview for a magazine she ate almost nothing because she was three pounds over her ideal weight: the journalist published the interview under the title “Dieting to Stardom”.
Today, she is remembered not as a star but as a tragic example of striving for impossible bodily perfection: a goal that probably resulted in a continuous feeling of failure and insecurity.
November 10, 1969 – The first episode of Sesame Street appears on NET (National Educational Television, the predecessor of the American Public Broadcasting Service).
This was the first TV show for young (preschool) children that was systematically based on the insights of child psychologists, aiming explicitly at contributing both to cognitive and emotional development.
November 28, 1969 – One of the most important Peruvian writers, José María Arguedas (58), shoots himself through the head in his Lima university office.
Arguedas was important both as a novelist and as an anthropologist. Being partly of indigenous Quechua descent, in all his work he had focused on traditional Andes cultures and the conflict between tradition and modernity.
For himself this also implied a kind of chronic identity crisis, which may have contributed to the severe depressions that he kept suffering from in the last ten years of his life.
After his suicide an unfinished manuscript was found describing his struggle with depression and how he was “wracking my brains looking for a way to liquidate myself decently”.
June 8, 1970 – Death of important psychologist Abraham Maslow, known for (among many other things) his “Hierarchy of Needs” and his theory of self-actualization. With his “Humanistic Psychology” he focused on finding out what makes mentally healthy people tick. Quote:
“It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology, and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.”
September 18, 1970 – Brilliant guitarist Jimi Hendrix joins the ranks of the many great musicians (and other stars) who died from a drugs overdose.
He took 10 times the advised dose of Vesparax sleeping pills, and to make sure, washed them down with wine.
It remains unclear whether this was a case of stupidity or suicidality.
October 4, 1970 – Singer Janis Joplin (27) is found dead on the floor of her Los Angeles hotel room. It appears that a dose of unusually strong heroin, perhaps combined with a few drinks, became fatal to her.
Her album Pearl, that she had been recording just days before, was released posthumously a few months later and instantly became a huge success.
November 25, 1970 – In a weirdly anachronistic spirit, famous Japanese writer Yukio Mishima commits seppuku (the traditional samurai suicide by disembowelment, followed by decapitation by a helper).
Together with four followers, he had entered an army camp and held a speech to provoke a nationalistic coup d’état, but the soldiers had just jeered at him.
Many people think that the pathetic coup effort served mainly to provide a plausible motive for the dramatic suicide that he had been preparing.
July 3, 1971 – The Doors singer Jim Morrison (age 27) is found dead in his bathtub. As a heroin addict he probably died from an accidental overdose, though it’s not exactly clear what happened.
Heroin addiction (and addiction-related depression) has fatally contributed to countless untimely deaths. We notice this mainly when it happens to a yet another celebrity. But the same thing keeps happening again and again, every day.
March 22, 1972 – The U.S. Supreme Court decides in the famous Eisenstadt v. Baird case that unmarried people have the same rights to contraception as married couples (and that therefore, giving them contraceptives is no felony).
The case was provoked by birth-control activist Bill Baird. He had been campaigning for liberalization since 1963 when, working in a clinic, he had seen an unmarried woman die from a self-inflicted coat hanger abortion.
In 1967 he intentionally provoked his own arrest and conviction. After a speech at Boston University, he publicly handed contraceptives to a girl. His subsequent conviction to 3 months in jail led, through a series of appeals, to the Supreme Court’s final decision.
July 13, 1972 – Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton becomes the Democratic candidate for Vice-President, as running mate of Presidential candidate George McGovern.
But a few weeks later, it turns out that Eagleton has been a depression patient, had two ECT treatments, and is still using antidepressants. Because of this, the McGovern team deems him “unsuitable” and forces him to withdraw (he is replaced with Sargent Shriver).
In the elections that year, McGovern would be defeated by Richard Nixon. Eagleton continued to serve as senator (without problems, getting re-elected twice) until 1987.
July 24, 1972 – Testing a new compound (fluoxetine) in the lab of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., researcher David Wong finds that it might be an effective antidepressant, as it can be used to regulate serotonin levels.
Wong first published about fluoxetine in 1974, and the next year Ely Lilly gave it the brand name Prozac. Larger-scale testing started in 1976, and Prozac was patented in 1982. Sales finally began in January 1988.
The effectivity of Prozac and similar fluoxetine-based antidepressants is not entirely undisputed: some research says these work for serious clinical depression but have little effect with lighter forms of depression. But this type of medication is still very popular today.
August 8, 1972 – Performance artist and often psychotic amphetamine addict Andrea Feldman (24), who had starred in three Andy Warhol movies, stages her own suicide as a performance.
She invited several friends to watch her “final starring role” at her parents’ New York apartment. There, holding a crucifix in one hand and a Bible in the other, she jumped from the 14th floor.
The poor crazy girl left a note saying: “I’m headed for the big time. I’m on my way up there with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.”
February 22, 1973 – Opening of the new Nusle Bridge which spans a deep valley just outside the city center of Prague, Czechia (at the time, communist Czechoslovakia). Like many high bridges, it soon was used by people killing themselves by jumping.
The number of suicides ran into the hundreds, so in 1997 the city installed tall chain link fence railings. When this didn’t help, they added a 3-foot-wide metal anti-climb strip on top of the fencing.
The bridge designer, Stanislav Hubicka, later told in an interview: “Of course it’s very unpleasant, and I have to admit that never in a million years did it occur to us that we’d have this problem.”
August 17, 1973 – Paul Williams (34), who had been lead singer of the popular group The Temptations throughout the 1960s, shoots himself after a row with his girlfriend.
Williams had just recorded a single to be brought out by Motown later that year: Feel Like Givin’ Up.
After his suicide, the company decided to not release this song because they felt in this situation it could be interpreted too literally. Later, in the 1980s, it was included on a compilation disk.
September 17, 1973 – Remember postage stamps? From before email? They often came with the portrait of someone famous, and the psychiatrist pictured most often on stamps (especially in his native Austria) is Sigmund Freud.
On this day in 1973, the government of the Caribbean island of Grenada issued what might be the ugliest Freud stamp ever. With its flowery adornments it looks more like a Catholic votive picture showing Saint Freud.
This stamp came in a psychiatric set of two: its counterpart featured Freud’s main rival, psychiatrist Carl Jung.
Being something like a neo-Freudian myself, I must object to the pricing. For one precious Jung (35 cent) you could get almost 12 cheapo Freuds (3 cent). Did they really think Jung was worth that much?
December 15, 1973 – The American Psychiatric Association votes 13–0 to formally remove “homosexuality” from the list of psychiatric disorders in its diagnostic manual, the DSM-II.
This change illustrated how the authority of such handbooks is based not purely on scientific insights, but on social trends, opinions and prejudices as well.
In this case, the APA corrected a prejudice that had become blatant. Let’s hope that future generations will not find similar misconceptions in today’s new DSM-V.
July 15, 1974 – Sarasota TV reporter Christine Chubbuck is presenting a news show. Suddenly she announces: “In keeping with Channel 40′s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you’re going to see another first: attempted suicide.”
Putting a gun to her head, she kills herself right in front of the camera.
She had been depressed for quite some time. But why this shocking performance? All we can say is that today she is remembered not for her life, but for her death.
September 8, 1974 – Birth date of Russian poet Boris Ryzhy (also written as Ryzhii) who wrote really stunning poems about depression, loneliness, music and drinking.
I know them only from the English and Dutch translations: I guess the Russian originals will be even more striking and beautiful.
In 2001, at the age of 26, Ryzhy hanged himself.
November 18, 1974 – Debut of the John Cassavetes movie A Woman Under the Influence, the award-winning story of a couple who each suffer from their own kind of madness and depression.
The man (played by Peter Falk) has his bipolar wife (played by Gena Rowlands) put in a mental health clinic for six months of treatment, but in the end he proves hardly more sane than she is.
This movie presented such an acute and recognizable image of mental health issues that it left a lasting impression on many viewers.
After viewing the movie, actor Richard Dreyfuss (suffering from bipolar disorder himself) told he found it “the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie” – so much that it made him want to vomit.
November 25, 1974 – Death of English folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake (26). He was a typical example of the “Van Gogh Syndrome”: someone whose work is not really recognized during his lifetime, but becomes highly appreciated soon after his premature death.
Drake was a very shy and withdrawn person; and also one who had been almost continuously tormented by deep depressions. This certainly was a theme in his songs, too.
He died from an overdose of his antidepressants, amitriptyline (a tricyclic antidepressant introduced in 1961, sold as Tryptizol). To this day, people dispute whether his death was an accident or a suicide.
Nowadays, in view of the known dangers of an overdose of tricyclic antidepressants, psychiatrists will avoid leaving depressed patients with a large stockpile of them.
March 25, 1975 – It’s not just in Hollywood that we keep encountering so many tragic, unhappy, depressed movie stars. On this date, famous French actress Michèle Girardon (36) killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She had played in over 30 films, most of them French but also other ones (in 1961 she played together with John Wayne in Hatari, learning English on the set).
When in 1972 her turbulent love relation with Spanish actor José de Vilallonga broke up, this triggered a depression that became ever worse. In her last three years, she was unable to play any role.
December 9, 1975 – The United Nations General Assembly votes to accept the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons.
To be honest, this is one of those well-meant UN initiatives where I keep being nagged by the question: so what?
Did voting for this stilted Declaration really make any difference to the daily lives of the millions of disabled people all over the world?
March 29, 1976 – At the 1976 Academy Awards, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (starring Jack Nicholson) is one of the most successful films ever. It wins no less than 5 Oscars: for best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay.
Based on a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, it was set in a mental institution where patients are being disciplined in very harsh and rigorous ways. Individual personality is suppressed by a brutal regime of electroshocks (and in the end, even lobotomy).
Although the movie showed situations and methods that in fact were already outdated by the mid-1970s (such as applying ECT without proper anesthetics) it certainly did contribute to a more critical discussion of institutional mental health care.
April 9, 1976 – Phil Ochs (35), a very important American folk singer whose outspoken political protest songs had a great impact during the 1960s Vietnam war, hangs himself.
In his last years he suffered from terrible depressions (and sometimes delusions) caused by bipolar disorder; his illness had also aggravated his tendency to drink heavily.
As far as I know, he is the only singer whose death was commemorated in the American Congress as not just a personal and artistic, but also a political loss (with a speech by Democrat Bella Abzug).
May 9, 1976 – German Rote Armee Fraktion terrorist Ulrike Meinhof commits suicide in her prison cell by hanging herself with a towel. In 2002, it was discovered that authorities were still in possession of her brain, which illegally had been preserved for later examination by a psychiatrist to determine if she was sane.
February 2, 1977 – This can be considered the birthday of one of the most popular (I don’t quite want to say effective) antidepressants ever.
On this date, the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly got the first patent on something new and promising: fluoxetine.
After ten years of testing, in December 1987, they would begin actually selling the stuff. They called it Prozac.
August 16, 1977 – Rock idol Elvis Presley (42) is found unconscious in a puddle of vomit on his bathroom floor. He dies in hospital a few hours later.
The exact cause of Presley’s death is much disputed, but all experts agree that a bad condition caused by overusing drugs was an important factor, as well as his habitual “polypharmacy”.
Polypharmacy is when you use five or more different kinds of medication together. Such a combination of different drugs can cause new and more extreme side effects.
Presley’s autopsy showed that he had combined huge doses of many different drugs: morphine, a barbiturate, chlorphenamine, codeine, Placidyl, Valium, Quaalude, Diazepam, and probably also Amytal, Nembutal, Carbrital, Sinutab, Elavil, Avental, and Valmid.
Perhaps there is a lesson to be drawn here?
October 6, 1977 – Ultra-romantic Flemish poet Jotie T’Hooft (21) kills himself at a friend’s home with an overdose of cocaine. He left twelve farewell poems and a message to his ex-wife, written on the wall: “Bye little girl! Good luck!”
It was not his first suicide attempt. T’Hooft, a notorious junkie, was insanely obsessed with death as a poetic theme and with the idea that death would fit him better than this imperfect, alienating world.
His obsession led to theatrical extravagance: for example, the interior of his own home had been painted all black. He died theatrically, too: while listening to the death-themed song The End by The Doors.
Personally I can testify that T’Hooft wrote some great, even unforgettable poetry. But I must say I can muster much less sympathy for his kind of death cult, than for the sufferings of ordinary depression victims.
September 7, 1978 – The Who drummer Keith Moon dies from 32 tablets of the strong sedative clomethiazole (probably washing them away with alcohol) where only 6 would already have been lethal.
There’s a story that his Beatle colleague Ringo Starr once warned him that his lifestyle would kill him, and his answer was “Yeah I know.”
November 18, 1978 – Date of one of the worst cases of organized mass hysteria ever, orchestrated by political extremist and religious sect leader Jim Jones.
In his Guyana “People’s Temple” community Jonestown, he had the parents poison their children (about 250) and convinced his followers they all had to kill themselves.
At the end of the day, the gruesome mass suicide-annex-murder had cost the lives of 918 people (almost all Americans) including Jones himself.
June 15, 1979 – The actress and photographer Laurie Bird kills herself in the New York apartment where she lived with her friend, singer-songwriter Art Garfunkel.
At her funeral, her father told a long-kept secret: he had always pretended that his wife had died from cancer, but in fact Laurie’s mother had killed herself too.
August 30, 1979 – Movie star Jean Seberg (40) kills herself in her car (parked near her Paris home) by taking a huge overdose of barbiturates combined with alcohol.
She was missed right away, but it took a 10-day search before the Renault with her body was found.
Clutched in her hand was a note saying “Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves.”
July 9, 1981 – Birth date of pudgy mustachioed plumber Mario, the most popular video game character ever. This day, he made his debut in Nintendo’s Donkey Kong release. It didn’t take long before he took up his mission of rescuing kidnapped princesses.
All over the world, deeply depressed gamers discovered that Mario worked as a powerful short-acting antidepressant. Even if only for a few minutes, Mario would enable players to forget their own misery by fully refocusing them on some noble goal again.
Unfortunately, users also came to realize that just like other strong antidepressants, Mario was highly addictive. Too-high too-frequent doses of Mario could in the end even worsen one’s depression: generating feelings of total waste, futility, and pointlessness.
Until today, psychotherapists still disagree about whether to prescribe a small dose of Mario, or to entirely skip this dangerous drug ;-)
May 29, 1982 – German-French movie star Romy Schneider (43) is found dead in her Paris apartment. People assumed she died from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills, but after two post-mortems the cause of death was declared to be cardiac arrest.
Schneider had been a famous and successful actress ever since as a teen in the 1950s she had played the role of Austrian empress “Sissi” in a series of three movies. But she always had to fight depressions and in the 1960s made at least one suicide attempt. She was said to have been extremely depressed at the time of her death; her son David (14) had died in an accident the year before.
She is often cited explaining how she really knew only two moods and nothing in between: either ecstatically happy, or terribly sad. A well-known Schneider quote is: “I can do everything onscreen, but absolutely nothing in life.”
October 3, 1982 – Death of English stage and movie actress Vivien Merchant (53, real name Ada Thompson). She had played in several major films such as Hitchcock’s 1972 Frenzy and was the longtime wife of famous playwright Harold Pinter, inspiring several of his plays.
When in the mid-1970s their marriage broke apart due to Pinter’s affairs (they formally divorced in 1980) she gradually sank into a deep depression that she was unable to cope with.
Instead of seeking proper therapeutic help, she turned to the bottle: constantly trying to drink away her depression, she rapidly turned into an extreme alcoholist.
After her death, the coroner told the press: “Tragically this lady drank herself to death … quite clearly there were no other causes.” According to him, her drinking had caused severe liver damage and internal bleedings.
In fact there were two tragedies here: of course the tragedy of this terrible end, but also the tragedy that with more professional help, perhaps this end could have been avoided.
May 1, 1983 – The French are shocked by the suicide of Pierre Bérégovoy, who just a month before had stepped down as Prime Minister (under President Mitterand) after his Socialist Party had lost the March elections.
According to his friends, Bérégovoy had been seriously depressed since the defeat.
There was little doubt about the way he died: by grabbing his bodyguard’s gun and firing it twice into his head (the second shot probably being caused by a “nervous reflex”).
But because Bérégovoy had not left his wife a suicide note, she initially refused to believe that he had killed himself.
June 4, 1983 – I bet you didn’t know that since 1983, every June 4 is the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.
Established by the United Nations, this day is meant as a reminder of the rights of children throughout the world: focusing on all those who are the victims of physical, mental and emotional abuse.
Do initiatives like this really make a difference? I leave it to you to answer that question.
July 20, 1983 – In a park in Virginia, lawyer Vince Foster (48) shoots himself. He was Deputy White House Counsel in the staff of President Bill Clinton (and a good friend of Hillary Clinton).
Foster had been successful as a private lawyer in Arkansas, but had great trouble adapting to a political position in Washington. His own perfectionism, combined with critical press reviews, made him feel deeply unhappy with himself and his new position.
As a man who already had depression tendencies, within half a year he was felled by deep clinical depression. The day before his death he ordered antidepressant medication (Trazodone) but obviously it was too late.
After his death, conspiracy theories began to circulate claiming that Foster had been murdered. However, thorough research established without any doubt that he had indeed killed himself.
August 19, 1984 – Suicidal depression (or just suicidal desperation) can hit anyone, regardless of class. On this day Edmund James Burke Roche, 5th Baron Fermoy (45) shot himself in his country house near Hungerford.
Roche was a British peer with the usual Eton and Sandhurst education, from a family with close ties to the British royal family.
His mother Ruth had been a a confidante and lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen’s mother). He was the uncle of Princess Diana: his sister Frances (married to the 8th Earl Spencer) was Diana’s mother.
It’s easy to find details about Roche’s family tree, but it looks like any background details about why he came to kill himself were carefully kept private.
December 30, 1985 – The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) formally approves a new synthetic antidepressant: buproprion. This means that Burroughs Wellcome (today GlaxoSmithKline) can begin selling it.
Under the brand names Wellbutrin and Zyban, buproprion soon became a popular antidepressant.
It had been invented in 1969 by chemist Nariman Mehta. So before the new drug could be introduced, patenting and testing took 16 years.
April 8, 1986 – Suicide of Yukiko “Yukko” Okada (18), who within a few years after winning a major TV talent show already had become a popular, successful pop singer in Japan.
On this day she was first found in her Tokyo apartment, sobbing, with a slashed wrist. Two hours later, having tried to recover in her music agent’s office, she jumped from the seven-story office building.
Okada’s death had such an impact in Japan that it caused a wave of copycat suicides: over 30 fans killed themselves too, and for a while people spoke about this as “the Yukiko Syndrome”.
April 11, 1987 – Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi (67) falls to his death in the stairwell of his apartment building. He was one of the best known Auschwitz survivors, who since 1946 had been writing frequently about the horrors of the Shoah.
Although he remained very productive all his life, he had been suffering from depression since the early 1960s: there is little doubt that this was triggered by his traumatic wartime memories.
There is more doubt about the nature of his death. Initially most people simply assumed it was suicide, and it was registered it as such, but some of his later biographers did suggest it may have been an accident.
June 10, 1987 – Actress Elizabeth Hartman, best known for her award-winning role as a blind girl in the movie A Patch of Blue, kills herself by jumping from her apartment. She had been chronically depressed for most of her life.
Hartman’s death was a painful example of how the often-heard suicide prevention advice to call someone for help can be simply inadequate. Just two hours before her death she had called her psychiatrist to tell she was feeling very down.
July 12, 1987 – Death of Andrei Snezhnevsky (83), the leading Russian psychiatrist who between 1950-1980 had played a key role in the most perverse kind of Soviet psychiatry.
He had developed the distorted diagnostic system that made it possible to classify political dissidents as dangerous psychopaths, so they could be locked away in psychiatric institutions without any legal process.
In the 1960s Snezhnevsky personally diagnosed several prominent dissidents such as Pyotr Grigorenko as “paranoid delusional”, forcing their brutal treatment in “special” mental hospitals for years.
Amazingly, Snezhnevsky was a longtime “Corresponding Fellow” of the British Royal College of Psychiatrists. It took until 1980 before they took steps to strip him of that honorary title.
Feb 28, 1989 – Swiss poet and novelist Hermann Burger (46) commits suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Burger was well known and successful with his intelligent and original writings, but he had been suffering ever more from depression.
A year before his death he had published Tractatus logico-suicidalis with over 1000 aphorisms about suicide; and around the same time in a story in his novel Brenner he had in fact foretold his suicide in a fairly exact way.
Still, his death took most people by surprise. Apparently many had thought that if he managed to write about it, he wouldn’t really do it.
June 5, 1989 – For once, I want to honor here an individual who had nothing to do with mental health topics – except that he demonstrated conviction and courage in a way that came close to madness. An icon of civil protest against the force of repression.
This was the day after the Chinese army had brutally crushed political protest at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. On a street nearby, an unarmed man stepped in front of a rolling column of army tanks, forcing them to a stop.
Having stopped the column, the man climbed on the first tank and tried to talk to the crew inside. He then kept standing close to the restarting tank, until two other unidentified people pulled him away.
Who this lone protester was, and what happened to him afterwards, remains unknown. But thanks to the photos taken by journalists from a nearby hotel, the action of “Tank Man” gained a symbolic value all over the world.
March 13, 1990 – Death of Bruno Bettelheim. He was a Holocaust survivor who in the 1950s and 1960s became famous for his institutional treatment of autistic children, based on a neo-Freudian vision on parental rejection and re-establishing personal relationships.
Later, new medical research on autism made Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic view less relevant and people began accusing him of “blaming the mothers”. He also was publicly accused of having embellished his biography, and even of “self-hatred” (the latter by people who didn’t share his views on Israel and Jewish assimilation).
Bettelheim, who had suffered from depressions for most of his life, couldn’t cope anymore. At the age of 86, he killed himself: the tragic end of a tragic life.
April 16, 1990 – Physician and euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian, who got the nickname “Doctor Death”, for the first time publicly assists in a suicide (of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Alzheimer patient).
At the time he could not be prosecuted because the Michigan laws did not provide for such a situation, but his license to practice medicine was revoked.
In 1998, in another case of voluntary euthanasia, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection. This got him convicted for murder: he spent over 8 years in prison.
After his release on parole Kevorkian continued to campaign for legalization of assisted suicide. He died in 2011 – not by euthanasia, but from complications caused by cancer.
August 24, 1990 – In a weird court case, the heavy-metal band Judas Priest is found not guilty of having caused the suicide of two of their fans, five years before in Sparks, Nevada.
There, Raymond Belknap (18) and James Vance (20) had shot themselves after a beer-and-drugs binge while listening to the Judas Priest album Stained Class. Belknap was killed instantly. Vance, horribly disfigured, died from complications three years later.
Vance’s parents, desperately looking for someone to blame, alleged that the Judas Priest song Better By You, Better Than Me contained a “subliminal do-it message” that had incited the two youths to commit suicide.
In the trial, band members testified that even if they had really wanted to put a hidden message in a song, then of course it would not be to make their fans kill themselves, but rather to get them to buy more albums.
December 7, 1990 – Exiled Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, suffering from AIDS (HIV, as we would say today) and depression, kills himself with a drugs overdose.
Initially a Castro supporter, in the 1970s he criticized the regime and was incarcerated several times. In 1980, he had fled to the USA.
He left a suicide note that ended with the words “Cuba will be free. I already am”. If you ask me, those last three words indicate a fallacy: for being dead is not the same as being free.
September 11, 1991 – Schizophrenia patient Ernst Herbeck (70) dies in the Austrian state mental hospital at Maria Gugging that had been his home for over 45 years.
Herbeck had become famous as a poet since 1977, when his psychiatrist Leo Navratil began publicizing his poems. Herbeck’s wrote all of them in a therapeutic setting, and only after Navratil had cued him with a specific word (for example an animal, a color, a body part) that should be the poem’s subject.
In 2012 a really striking selection of Herbeck’s poems was published in English translation: Everyone Has a Mouth. The book is already sold out, but you can read it online at the publisher’s site.
July 22, 1992 – In a hospital in Newport Beach, California, actor and stuntman Wayne McLaren (51) dies from lung cancer. He had been a smoker for 30 years, averaging one-and-a-half packet per day.
In 1976, McLaren had been one of the models appearing as cowboy “Marlboro Man” in the long-running, very successful Marlboro cigarettes campaign (1954-1999).
In the last two years before his death, after having been diagnosed with cancer, McLaren had become a public anti-smoking activist. In that context, he even had himself filmed in his hospital bed.
Several other former “Marlboro Men” shared a similar fate: for example David McLean, who died from lung cancer in 1995. All this got enough publicity for some people to start referring to Marlboro as “the cowboy-killer”.
December 31, 1992 – Ben Silcock (27), a schizophrenia patient, climbs over a wall to enter the lions’ den at London Zoo. He gets badly mauled, but survives after surgery.
Later, after three years of psychiatric hospital care, he explained: “I decided I’d rather be killed by a lion than spend the rest of my life in a psychiatric unit.”
He also told “I can’t remember much about that time because I was on so much medication I was hallucinating.”
July 4, 1993 – Author Wataru Tsurumi causes much commotion in Japan by publishing his Complete Suicide Manual. While not explicitly promoting suicide, this book discussed various methods (preparation, painfulness, results) in a very factual manner.
Some people think that by indicating the most effective methods, this book may have contributed to the relatively high suicide rates in modern Japan.
July 2, 1995 – 27-year-old Alex Jordan is found hanging in a closet in her Marina del Rey seaside apartment. Her suicide was the end of a life story so weird and tragic that maybe, one day, someone ought to write a novel about it.
In 1992 Jordan, who since her teens suffered from depressions, had hopefully answered an ad for a female photo model. This turned out to be an entry into the “adult” industry. In no time she had become a very successful porn star, appearing in many movies.
Real love and fake love got mixed up. When Alex actually married a colleague porn actor, they had not just the ceremonies filmed but also their own wedding night – her unsuspecting family got a sanitized version of the film, with the explicit main part cut out.
A few weeks before her death, her husband had gone to Colorado where they were going to start a ski shop together, as they both longed to quit the demanding porn business.
Temporarily left alone at home, emotionally unstable, having not taken her antidepressants since months, Alex was triggered into suicide by… the death of her parrot.
Alex Jordan’s suicide note is the first one on record that was addressed not to a human being, not to her husband, not even to a dog or cat, but to a dead bird.
October 15, 1995 – French philosopher Sarah Kofman (60) kills herself. The year before she had published a book about her traumatic experiences as a young Jewish child hidden in Nazi-occupied Paris.
A prolific writer, Kofman was an acknowledged expert on two key figures from the past: philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.
Her 1980 book The enigma of woman still counts as the major analysis of Freud’s thoughts about women and female sexuality.
August 30, 1996 – French movie actress Christine Pascal (42) kills herself by jumping from a window of the psychiatric clinic where she had been admitted five days before.
She was known for her depressions and suicidal tendencies. When in 1984 an interviewer asked her how she would like to die, she had said “By killing myself, when the time has come”.
Pascal’s death led to a remarkable court case. In 2003 one of the clinic’s psychiatrists, Daniel Tap, was sentenced to 1 year in jail for negligence because he had done nothing to prevent her suicide.
November 22, 1996 – London fashion photographer Terence Donovan (60) commits suicide.
In the 1960s and 1970s, his innovative work for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue had made him one of the first truly famous fashion photographers. He was the one who started the trend of photographing glamorous models in contrasting, grim urban settings.
Donovan also made TV commercials, music videos and a movie; and having a black belt in judo he co-wrote a book about that.
In spite of this very rich and creative life, he was also known to suffer from serious depression: a battle he lost in the end.
June 22, 1997 – Popular Swedish singer-songwriter Ted Gärdestad (41) kills himself by jumping in front of a train from a station platform in Sollentuna (near Stockholm).
He had been a star throughout the 1970s, then dropped out to join Bhagwan’s notorious Oregon commune in the 1980s, and had been making a successful comeback since 1990.
Eight years after the suicide, Ted’s brother Kenneth wrote a biography relating how Ted had fought anxiety, paranoia and depression since his teens. According to Kenneth, Ted had never been properly diagnosed and thus never got the medication or therapy that might have saved his life.
September 20, 1997 – American punk rocker Nick Traina (19, lead singer of the band Link 80) kills himself with an intentional heroin overdose.
Traina, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had already been hospitalized in psychiatric institutions several times in his brief life.
His tragic death got relatively much attention because his mother, who had done everything she could to get him properly treated, was the famous bestselling author Danielle Steel.
Steel described how her son had struggled with his depressions in a book she wrote about him, His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina (published 1998).
March 27, 1998 – The American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) permits pharmaceutical firm Pfizer to begin selling the new drug Viagra (sildenafil citrate) which had been patented two years before.
As a prescription drug for treating male impotence, it immediately became hugely popular. So popular that spammers and con artists began pushing fake look-alike pills to meet the demand.
With some depression patients, both men and women, it can be used to counteract the general sexual disfunction caused by antidepressant medication or by the depression itself.
May 12, 1998 – Final exposure and arrest of German impostor psychiatrist Gert Postel, after his having worked for years in a senior position in a psychiatric clinic near Leipzig, diagnosing patients and giving lectures.
Postel was an uneducated mail carrier who since 1982 had been posing as a physician and psychiatrist, obtaining prominent jobs by submitting forged documents.
For one of his first successful job applications he claimed to have written a dissertation on the subject of pseudologia phantastica, compulsive lying. The book didn’t exist, but no one ever checked it out.
After a couple of years in prison, Postel capitalized on his fraudulent career by writing a book about it, Playing Doctor (2001). He claimed that he had only wanted to expose the vapidness of formal psychiatry: by demonstrating that one could be accepted as a psychiatrist even when talking pure nonsense, just by using the correct jargon.
April 26, 1999 – English rock singer/guitarist Adrian Borland, age 41, dies after throwing himself under a train. It was his fourth suicide attempt.
June 17, 1999 – At a conference in Pittsburgh, the International Society for Bipolar Disorders is founded. As one of its first initiatives, that same year it would launch the research journal Bipolar Disorders: An International Journal of Psychiatry and Neurosciences.
While the founding of this organization reflected the growing attention for bipolar depression, its recentness also shows that it did take a long time before this problem really got the attention it deserves.
July 5, 2001 – Hannelore Kohl (68), the longtime wife of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, kills herself with an overdose of pills. She left suicide notes both for her husband and for her son.
As a twelve-year-old in 1945, Kohl had been one of the many German girls brutally raped by Soviet soldiers. This had left her with permanent spine damage (the soldiers had thrown her out of a window). In the 1980s, she had started a foundation to help people with similar injuries.
In official comments, Kohl’s suicide was related to her more recent suffering from a sunlight allergy, which kept her inside her home for most of the time.
However, other comments in the press strongly suggested that her allergy problem was in fact a severe depression, caused by years of neglect by a husband who almost never took the time to be with her.
July 6, 2001 – Heinz Prechter (59), a very successful businessman in the American automotive parts industry (and political fundraiser for the Bush family) commits suicide by hanging himself.
Prechter had started his career in 1963 as a broke exchange student from Germany, and had managed to build a huge conglomerate of businesses. But all the while, he had been suffering from bipolar disorder with severe bouts of depression.
After his suicide, his widow established the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund that helps several universities to establish fundamental research on bipolar disorder.
But as I write this (2013, twelve years later) it’s too early to report a real breakthrough: sadly, we’re still too often curing symptoms rather than causes.
July 11, 2001 – Suicide of Herman Brood (54) who since the 1970s had been hugely popular in the Netherlands. He was famous first of all as a sex-and-drugs rock and roll musician, but also as painter of colorful pop-art works, as an actor, and poet.
He killed himself in a theatrical way fitting his image, jumping from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel. His death stunned many and his funeral, organized as a huge media event, got very much attention.
Most biographers assume that Brood killed himself from a depression worsened (if not caused) by his failing attempts to kick his alcohol and amphetamine addiction.
June 29, 2002 – Brilliant and successful 25-year old software designer Gene Kan, a widely acknowledged specialist in search engines, kills himself with a shot through the head.
What he did right before his death was a typical example of depressed self-perception. He added the following line at the bottom of his personal Berkeley University web page:
“Summary: Sad example of a human being. Specializing in failure.”
September 16, 2002 – Debut of the popular American TV show Dr. Phil, with psychologist Phil McGraw pretending to give practical no-nonsense psychological advice in all kinds of daily life problems.
McGraw had learned how to play the public as a sidekick in the Oprah Winfrey Show. With his own show, he now makes about $80 million a year.
My opinion? There is just as much professional psychological content in his sensation-seeking performance as there is juice in a balloon. This man really gives me the creeps.
April 1, 2003 – Famous, very successful Hong Kong movie star and musician Leslie Cheung (46) kills himself by jumping from the 24th floor of a hotel. He is mourned all over Asia (and elsewhere in the world).
His family told the press that he had been suffering from severe depression for quite some time, and had already attempted suicide a year before.
He left a suicide note in which he explained he couldn’t cope anymore, and thanked people for trying to help him – naming his psychiatrist first of all.
The note ended with an unanswered question: “In my life I did nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?”
September 10, 2003 – First World Suicide Prevention Day, organized by the WHO (United Nations’ World Health Organization).
Why? According to the WHO, roughly 1 million die by suicide every year: about 3,000 every day, one death every 40 seconds.
The number of suicide attempts is 20 times as high: meaning one suicide attempt every 2 seconds, 60,000 attempts every day.
September 23, 2003 – The British Sun tabloid causes a stir by reporting the admittance of depressed celebrity Frank Bruno into a psychiatric hospital with the huge headline BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP.
Bruno (who was 42 in 2003) is a still popular ex-boxer and media figure who suffers from bipolar disorder. The day before, after months of serious depression, he had been taken from his home to the hospital by police and medics.
The Sun’s coverage immediately caused widespread indignation; most people found it disrespectful and unacceptable. Pressed by public opinion, in its second edition the newspaper removed the headline and rewrote the article. Later, in an effort to make up for its gaffe, the Sun even established a charity fund for the mentally ill.
The whole affair demonstrated how by that time the public perception of mental illness had become much more understanding: a development that the newspaper had not taken into account.
November 12, 2003 – Actor Jonathan Brandis (27) dies in a Hollywood hospital, a few hours after he was found having hanged himself.
Ten years before he had been a very popular teen idol, getting thousands of fan letters from girls every week, and needing bodyguards to protect him from over-enthusiastic fans.
It may have been the gradual loss of his teen idol status that caused his depression and suicide.
June 14, 2004 – The pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb officially stops selling the antidepressant Nefazodone in the United States and Canada.
Nefazodone had been approved as an antidepressant by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) in December 1994, and had since been sold under brand names such as Serzone and Nefadar.
Bristol-Meyers withdrew the product after between 2000-2003 it became clear that in some very rare cases, Nefazodone could cause liver damage serious enough to necessitate a liver transplant, or even to cause death.
The case made clear that even when a drug is officially allowed by the FDA, this cannot guarantee that it is harmless.
In some other countries, and under different names, Nefazodone is still being sold today. Also, it was never removed from the FDA’s own list of “FDA Approved Drug Products”.
September 7, 2004 – The promising English stage, TV and movie actress Fritha Goodey (32 and a true “rising star”) commits suicide by stabbing herself through the heart.
It was her father who found her, with a suicide note, in her home in London’s fashionable Notting Hill district.
At the time she was slated to play some major roles; no one had seen this tragic end coming.
The contents of her suicide note were not made public. Some of the newspaper obituaries suggested that her fatal depression might have been caused by her longstanding fight against anorexia.
November 9, 2004 – After four months of struggling with severe depression, historian Iris Chang (36) parks her car on a Californian back road and shoots herself. She left three different suicide notes, all written the day before, reflecting a desperate, near-psychotic state of mind.
Chang was known for her work about the social history of Chinese-Americans. Internationally she was especially famous for her 1997 book The Rape of Nanking. This was about the Nanking massacre of 1937-38, when Japanese occupation troops in an orgy of rape, torture and murder killed over 300,000 civilians. Chang had interviewed many eyewitnesses and survivors.
A few months before her suicide, Chang had been hospitalized for a few days after a breakdown, to be released with a heavy dose of medication: she was using Depakote (mood stabilizer, antidepressant) and Risperdal (antipsychotic).
Her tragic death should remind us that in some cases, for our own safety we may need more care than just some pills.
March 19, 2005 – The American Starz TV channel finally dares to premiere the 2001 movie Prozac Nation, that movie company Miramax had been refusing to release for years.
Based on the autobiographical bestseller by Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation was the story of a talented girl’s struggle with major depression, including a suicide attempt. In the movie, “Lizzie” was played by Christina Ricci (photo).
According to one of the script writers, Miramax probably didn’t release the movie because it gave a too realistic depiction of depression, and therefore also lacked a clear ending: while medication did save Lizzie’s life, it also caused a kind of identity loss.
May 17, 2005 – Suicide (by gassing in his car) of Owen Wilkes, who between ca. 1968-1990 had been the charismatic leading activist of the New Zealand peace moveiment, for example in opposing American Navy bases.
Wilkes had been suffering from severe depressions all his life.
This had worsened since in 1990 his only child, Koa, had killed herself. Wilkes used to blame himself both for having given her his “depression genes”, and for having failed as a father.
December 13, 2005 – Scientists at the California Salk Institute for Biological Studies manage to embed human nerve cells in the brain of live mice.
Although only 0.1 percent of the changed mouse brain consisted of human cells, this research experiment provoked discussion of bioethics, the ethical boundaries of biological research.
July 23, 2006 – Physician and former astronaut Charles E. Brady (54) walks into the woods near his home on Orcas Island (near Seattle) and kills himself, leaving behind a wife and a young child. Brady had been in space with a sixteen-day Space Shuttle mission in 1996.
Although he had left NASA in 2002, Brady’s suicide worried NASA enough to start an investigation (mainly by interviewing people) to get insight in “potential psychological concerns”, “in terms of identifying and acting on an astronaut with psychiatric problems.”
They wanted to know if in Brady’s case they had done something wrong, maybe ignored warning signals, “in order to take from it any lessons learned in the hope that such an event might be prevented from ever occurring again.”
The outcome of NASA’s inquiries was not published, which leaves us in the dark about Brady’s exact suicide motives. Most probably, he had been suffering from a deathly combination of depression and unrelated health problems (arthritis).
August 1, 2006 – Pharmaceutical company Pfizer starts selling the stop-smoking drug varenicline (brand name Chantix) in the USA. Two months later it also became available in Europe (as Champix).
It could help people to stop smoking, because it both reduces the crave for nicotine, and reduces the actual effect of nicotine while smoking.
In 2008, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) noticed that this drug could cause “serious neuropsychiatric symptoms” in the form of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal actions.
In July 2009, the FDA required Pfizer to print a “black box” on Chantix packages, to clearly warn for this side effect.
Nov. 20, 2006 – Former NFL (National Football League) player Andre Waters (44), who had been a defensive back for over 10 years (Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals), commits suicide by shooting himself.
After his death, a neuropathologist at the University of Pittsburgh studied samples of Waters’ brain tissue and concluded that he had been suffering from brain damage and depression, caused by the numerous concussions sustained during football games.
Recently, over ten other football-player deaths have been linked to the same condition (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE).
When in February 2011 Dave Duerson, another ex-football star, shot himself he left a message asking that his brain would be tested for CTE. Researchers at Boston University confirmed he had been suffering from it too.
February 8, 2007 – Model, actress and socialite Anna Nicole Smith, age 39, dies in a Florida hotel room from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Hers was a typical case of foolishly mixing a large quantity of several drugs that each by itself would not be lethal, into a drug cocktail where the combination of those sedatives and antidepressants could be disastrous.
Smith had taken the unbelievable combination of a large dose of the sedative chloral hydrate, together with no less than four benzodiazepines: clonazepam, lorazepam, oxazepam (Serax) and diazepam (Valium), plus diphenhydramine and the anticonvulsant topiramate.
May 7, 2007 – Famous English fashion editor and extravagant hat wearer Isabella Blow (48) dies in hospital, a day after attempting suicide by drinking the poisonous weed killer Paraquat. She had been suffering from bipolar disorder with severe depression episodes for a long time.
In the two years before her death, she had already attempted suicide several times: (1) by an overdose of sleeping pills; (2) by jumping from an overpass (breaking both her ankles); (3) by smashing her car into the rear of a truck; (4) by taking horse tranquilizers; (5) by trying to drown herself in a lake; (6) by overdosing on medication.
When right after her 7th and fatal attempt she was found still alive by her sister, she had said: “I’m worried that I haven’t taken enough…”
Family and friends buried her with on the coffin, towering between the flowers, a black Philip Treacy hat in the form of a sailing ship.
August 31, 2007 – The New York State Thruway Authority installs four telephones on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the river Hudson, each phone connecting directly to a suicide prevention call center.
This was done because there had been over 25 suicides within a few years by people jumping from the bridge. The authorities also installed anti-suicide fences, and signs saying “Life is Worth Living” or “When it seems like there is no hope, there is help”.
It is not known if in the following years these measures did actually help.
December 10, 2007 – The wife of Dutch singer Arne Jansen (56) finds him hanging in one of the barns of his horse-breeding farm. Resuscitation efforts come too late.
Jansen (not to be confused with German jazz guitarist Arne Jansen) had scored his biggest hit in the Netherlands in 1972 with the immensely popular song Meisjes met Rode Haren (Red Hair Girls).
According to insiders Jansen had been “down and overwrought” for quite some time, although this was not apparent in a TV interview he gave just four days before his death. There was a rumor that the day before his suicide, his wife had discovered he had an affair with the girl he employed as his driver.
September 12, 2008 – American writer David Foster Wallace (46) hangs himself on his patio. He was recognized for his highly original novels (The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest), his essays, and his short stories (such as the suicide-themed Good Old Neon).
Wallace had been suffering from chronic depression for at least 20 years, and been dependent on medication (mainly phenelzine, also known as Nardil) for most of that time.
In the year before his death the side effects of his pills had become so unbearable that he began experimenting with alternative treatments, even ECT (electroshocks). When this didn’t help, he first attempted suicide by overdosing on medication. Many people tried to help and support him, but his second attempt was fatal.
In 2011, his unfinished novel The Pale King was published posthumously: Wallace had left a usable copy of it along with his suicide note.
October 2, 2008 – Hugely popular and successful South Korean movie and TV actress Choi Jin-sil (39) shocks the entire nation by hanging herself. She was known to have some problems, but no one had expected her depression to be suicidal.
To some, Choi’s death was such a shock that it may have triggered a wave of “copycat suicides”. According to one source, in the month right after her death there were 700 more suicides in South Korea than in a normal month.
Choi’s younger brother Jin-young, a well-known singer and minor actor, was so devastated by her death that his grief evolved into a deep depression. Having refused any psychiatric help, in March 2010 he hanged himself too.
A weird chapter of this awful story is how a fan managed to steal the urn with Choi’s ashes from her grave site. It took the police ten days to recover it. Today, her tomb is a special high-security one with electronic alarms and surveillance cameras.
June 25, 2009 – Flemish singer and tv personality Hilde Rens (37) is found hanging from a tree. Under her artist name Yasmine, she was very popular both in Belgium and the Netherlands. She had recorded 8 albums and presented several TV shows.
Her death generated very much media attention. At the time, it also tripled the number of calls made to suicide-prevention hotlines.
Openly lesbian, Yasmine had been a kind of role model in that respect. In 2003, right after it became legally possible, she had been among the first to enter a lesbian marriage. A few months before Yasmine’s death the couple had divorced; this had worsened her already existing depression.
But no one expected her to kill herself. Just two days before, she had seen her doctor to discuss the side effects of her antidepressant medication. And two weeks before, she herself had said in a newspaper interview: “Yes I’ve known happier times. But I can manage it.”
September 24, 2009 – In Montreal, successful Canadian writer Nelly Arcan (36, actual name Isabelle Fortier) kills herself. This was the third time she had tried to hang herself.
Arcan’s 2001 debut novel Putain (translated 2004 as Whore) had been a huge literary success in Quebec and France. It was partly based on her own experiences as an escort girl.
At the time of her death she had just finished her fifth novel, which was about someone facing the consequences of a failed suicide attempt.
One of her friends, a psychoanalyst, told how he got a message from her thanking him for everything, and how he immediately understood and tried to phone her, but was too late.
This is one of those sad cases that in hindsight look so predictable, that one cannot help wondering why people around her (apparently) failed to recognize the obvious suicide risk. But of course we’ll never know for sure if more help from others would have saved her life.
October 31, 2009 – After two years of deep depression following the failure of her first marriage (and only three months after entering a second marriage) Chinese singer Chen Lin (39) jumps to her death.
Since the 1990s she had been really popular in mainland China; she had scored several hits in the “mandopop” (Mandarin pop) genre.
Staying as a guest in the 9th-floor apartment of her friend Zhang Qiang, the evening before she had done her best to talk about her troubles.
They each went to their own room to sleep; the next morning Chen was found dead in the garden below.
Nov. 19, 2009 – Daul Kim (or Kim Da-eul in the Korean way with family name first) was an internationally famous fashion model from South Korea who on this day, at the age of 20, hanged herself in her Paris apartment after a long struggle with depression.
In her blog for the last three years, she had already been referring often and clearly to her insomnia, feelings of loneliness, and suicidal impulses. But apparently no one had taken these signs seriously enough, and she failed to get the help she needed.
A footnote to this sadly not uncommon story: it may look like famous people end up killing themselves more often than ordinary mortals. This, of course, is not true. It’s just that suicides get media attention only if some famous person is concerned. But every suicide is a tragedy; deaths like these are just the tip of the iceberg.
February 25, 2010 – After a week of frantic searching, police and worried family members find the body of missing actor Andrew Koenig (41) hanging from a tree in a city park in Vancouver.
Koenig (1980s Growing Pains series, 2003 Batman) was simply exhausted from having to fight depression all his life. Since a year, he had stopped taking antidepressant medication.
Afterwards, it became clear how utterly hopeless he must have felt. In the weeks before he left for Vancouver, he had already given away most of his possessions.
April 22, 2010 – In his New York apartment, male fashion model Ambrose Olsen hangs himself. Olsen (24) was a highly popular fashion model who figured in ads for Armani, Hugo Boss, Saint Laurent, Dior, Vuitton, and more.
His suicide coincided with several others in the fashion world. That very same day, the famous Columbian model Lina Marulanda (29) jumped off her 6th floor balcony; just two weeks later in May, French model Noémie Lenoir (30) barely survived a suicide attempt by overdose; in June, French model Tom Nicon (22) killed himself.
And two months before, in February, the trendy British fashion designer Alexander McQueen (40) had hung himself.
This “wave of fashion suicides” made people wonder what was wrong in the fashion world. If you ask me, it just shows that depression can hit you even if you are beautiful and successful.
April 5, 2012 – Hungarian cult writer Attila Hazai (44) kills himself. He was popular in Hungary but his original work did not get the wider recognition that it deserved: it was never translated into English.
One of his best books was his inspired and funny 1997 Budapesti skizo (“Budapest Schizo”), a kind of alternative version of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
In case you know German, there actually is a German translation of Budapest Schizo.
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