Psychiatry in the 1930’s

“Between 1939 and 1945, more than 300,000 Germans with mental illness perished in gas chambers. These crimes were committed by German functionaries with the assistance of eminent psychiatrists, under the pretext that they were acting as humanitarians by providing euthanasia or conserving funds for their war effort (Gittelman, 2006)”

Prior to World War II, psychiatry was far from a stable institution. As the war began, new developments in psychiatry were on the rise. It is important to understand the changes that occurred in the school of psychiatry as well as significant persons present during the war.

1935: Development of insulin shock therapy

“E. Sakel (1935) developed insulin shock therapy. (Fink, 1984)”

1935-1936: The first Lobotomy is performed

“The first scientific report of lobotomy applied as a psychosurgical treatment for severe mental disorders was written by the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz in 1936. This study was published less than a year after the first lobotomy had been performed with a human subject, and stimulated experimentation in psychosurgery around the world. (Diefenbach et al., 1999)”

1938: Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini introduce electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in Italy

“The Italian scientists Cerletti and Bini subsequently succeeded in defining the parameters necessary for applying electricity directly to the human scalp. In 1938, they treated an unidentified 39-year-old man who was found delusional in a train station. His delusions receded after several treatments; he recovered fully after 11 treatments without adverse effects.8,33 Thus “electroconvulsive” therapy was born. (Payne & Prudic., 2009)”

Leo Eitinger 
was a physician in Norway during the World War II and the Holocaust (Echoes of the Holocaust, 1997). In 19420, Nazi officers revoked his medical license because of his Jewish descent. Two years later he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp. While at the extermination camp, Eitinger was put to work at the camp hospital. (Fun fact: one of his patients was the infamous Elie Wiesel!)  He was one of 23 survivors from Norway deported to concentration camps. When he returned to Norway after the liberation, Eitinger changed his focus of study to psychiatry. Upon surviving the Holocaust, he made it his life’s work to studying human suffering. His work contributed to the World Health Organization’s development of a diagnostic category known as “Enduring personality change after catastrophic experience”.

“Leo Eitinger’s greatest achievement was in his meticulous studies of “Concentration Camp Survivors in Norway and Israel” (1964), and “Mortality and Morbidity after Excessive Stress” (1973). (Echoes of the Holocaust, 1997)”  

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist practicing in Austria when the Holocaust began (Viktor Frankl Institut). Research suggests that Frankl used his expertise to save several patients from the euthanasia program. Beginning in 1942, he was imprisoned at several different concentration camps and was the only survivor in his immediate family. He worked as a psychiatrist in clinics within the camps until his transfer to Auschwitz, where he became a slave laborer. American troops finally liberated Frankl on April 27, 1945. Until his death in 1997, Viktor Frankl took an existential approach to life. He used his experience of being an inmate at concentration camps to write an inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describing how to get meaning out of one’s life. His existentialist views served to shape his approach to both therapy and the field of psychiatry as a whole.

Below are two clips from a documentary examining psychiatry/psychology during the Holocaust.

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