The StayOnTop sidebar has a daily refreshed Today In History item. These items from the past are archived here, so this page is growing into an ever longer list of varied small historical facts of interest.
To make this list into a kind of history, entries are kept in chronological order here (by year).
If you want to check for occurrences of a specific date, say “June 8”, use your browser’s in-page search: hit the Ctrl-F key combination and enter June 8 in the search box. You can search for names in the same way.
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”.
Feb 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 colleages 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Dec 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 derivate 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.
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).
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 many 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 representants 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.
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 from natural causes).
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 patients.
After returning 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 killed 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.
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.
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 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”).
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.
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 extraversiobn/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.”
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.
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.
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 Charless 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.
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”.
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.
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.
July 1, 1917 – Birth date of psychiatrist Humphry 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.
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”.
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 phantasies (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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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).
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, representants 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 commited 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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 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; his first son had committed suicide in 1950, 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.
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 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?
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).
b 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 an contraceptive.
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.
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.
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,nbsp;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. 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.
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.
June 8, 1970 – Death of importanbsp;nt 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.
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.”
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.
Sep 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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, succesful pop singer in Japan.
On this day she was first found in her Tokyo apartment, sobbing, with a slashed wrist. Two/p 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.
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.
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.
December 7, 1990 – Exiled Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, suffering from AIDS 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.
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.
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.
March 27, 1998 – The American FDA (Food and Drug Adminisbtration) 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.
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 biad. Why does it have to be like this?”
September 10, 2003 – First World Suicide Prevention Day, organized by the WHO (United Nations’ Worlbd 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.
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.
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 movement, 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.
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 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 to reduce the number of suicides.
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.
May 3, 2012 – UNESCO’s yearly World Press Freedom Day. Sadly, in a worldwide perspective, press censorship is still not history yet.