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Who invented ECT?

Although the use of electricity as a treatment for headaches goes back to the ancient Romans (who used electric eels to treat the headaches of the emperor), Italian psychiatrist Ugo Cerletti is credited with the introduction of electroshock therapy. Cerletti, having "doubts regarding the danger of electric applications to man," observed that hogs were subdued and calm moments before slaughter after the application of 125 volts using metallic tongs clamped to their temples.

"It occurred to me," wrote Cerletti, "that the hogs of the slaughterhouse could furnish the most valuable material for my experiments...At this point I felt we could venture to experiment on man, and I instructed my assistants to be on the alert for the selection of a suitable subject."

On April 15, 1938, Cerletti found his man, known only by the initials S. E. The Police Commissioner of Rome found S.E. wandering, and took him to the hospital for observation. Cerletti diagnosed S.E. with a form of schizophrenia and applied the first use of ECT, using the small dose of 80 volts for 0.2 seconds. S.E. jumped, then stiffened and fell back on the bed. Then he burst into song.

"It was quite evident to all of us that we had been using a too low voltage," Cerletti wrote. He discussed the patient with his colleagues and decided to let S.E. rest before giving him another shock. The patient, who had - unbeknownst to Cerletti - been listening to the conversation said clearly in Italian "Not another one! It's deadly!"

"I confess that such explicit admonition under such circumstances, and so emphatic and commanding, coming from a person whose enigmatic jargon had until then been very difficult to understand, shook my determination to carry on with the experiment. But it was just this fear of yielding to a superstitious notion that caused me to make up my mind. The electrodes were applied again, and a 110-volt discharge was applied for 0.2 seconds." (1)

With that, electroshock therapy was born.

In an article written by Dr. Frank Ayd in 1963, Cerletti is quoted as saying "When I saw the patient's reaction, I thought to myself: This ought to be abolished! Ever since I have looked forward to the time when another treatment would replace electroshock." (2)


1. Frank, LR (1978). The History of Shock Treatment. San Francisco.

2. Ayd, F.J. Jr. Guest Editorial UGO CERLETTI, M.D. (1877-1963). Psychosomatics, 4:A6-A7, 1963.

Updated August 12, 2006

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