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To illustrate the unscientific basis of this “science,” in fascist Italy in the 1930s, Professor Ugo Cerletti noted that back in A.D. 43 or so, Roman citizens would sometimes try to rid themselves of headaches by putting a torpedo fish on their heads. A torpedo fish generates about twenty-five volts of electricity. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the Empire fell soon after that, but be that as it may, Cerletti was undeterred by this observation and set off on a new path. He began his experiments by killing dogs with huge jolts of electricity. However, before he could significantly reduce Rome’s canine population, inspiration came in the form of a visit to a pig slaughterhouse. There, much to his delight, he found that pigs were not killed by the electricity administered, but only sent into epileptic convulsions, whereupon their throats could conveniently be cut by the butchers. After experimenting further — and losing a great many pigs — to discover how much electricity it would take to kill one of the porcine creatures, he was ready for man.

The unfortunate vagrant he chose (generously supplied by the police) received 70 volts to the head, fell, then shouted, “Not a second [one]. It will kill!” Later, it was discovered that human beings could withstand between 140 and 150 volts to the brain. Thus electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) was born.

Psychosurgery had equally shabby beginnings, according to the medical historians. In 1848, Phineas Gage of Vermont was peering into a blasting hole when a charge detonated and blew a metal tamping rod through his brain — an unfortunate accident that he managed to survive.


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