1972: Prozac Discovered

July 24, 1972 – This was the day when Chinese-American neuroscientist David T. Wong (36) while testing a new compound (fluoxetine) in the lab of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., came to the conclusion that it might make an effective antidepressant by regulating brain serotonin levels. It would make him famous.

David Wong

Wong had started this particular thread of research on his own initiative, without asking the company’s consent. As he told later, “I didn’t even tell management that I started until I got going.”

He first published about his fluoxetine discovery in 1974, and the next year Ely Lilly gave it the brand name Prozac. Larger-scale testing started in 1976, and Prozac was patented in 1982.

Sales finally began in January 1988, over 15 years after the initial laboratory breakthrough. From the beginning, the new product was intensively promoted with campaigns aiming both for psychiatrists and other physicians, and the general public. Here is an early campaign image:

It Delivers (early campaign image)

As the first available drug in the SSRI class (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) Prozac soon became one of the best-selling antidepressants ever. For many depression patients, it replaced less effective drugs such as the tranquilizer Valium.

A Kind of Emblem

“Prozac” soon became a household name. In 1994, just six years after its appearance on the market, it was already so well known that Elizabeth Wurtzel could give her 1994 autobiographical novel about being “young and depressed in America” the emblematic title Prozac Nation.

Prozac Nation

Many people (including me) think that in the past decades Prozac has sometimes been over-prescribed to patients who might have been better off with less medication or even none at all. Still, it’s obvious that Wong’s discovery did not just generate huge profits for his employers. It probably did save a lot of lives as well.

Footnote:

 


1955: Eve Miller

July 21, 1955 – On this day, mentally unstable Hollywood actress Eve Miller (31) stabbed herself in the abdomen after discovering that her lover, actor Glase Lohman, did not want to marry her. She was found in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor.

Eve Miller in Big TreesEve Miller on a publicity photo for The Big Trees, 1952

Miller was a not-yet famous but certainly rising star; between 1948-1955 she had figured in nine films. Her best known roles had been in the westerns The Big Trees (with Kirk Douglas, 1952) and Kansas Pacific (with Sterling Hayden, 1953). In 1954, she had a minor role (along with Marilyn Monroe) in the musical There’s No Business Like Show Business.

She barely survived her suicide attempt; four hours of emergency surgery were needed to save her life. Here is an example of how newspapers covered it:

Eve Miller Stabbed Self

Never Fully Recovering

After her 1955 suicide attempt Miller would never play in another major film again.

She continued to appear in various TV series such as Lassie until the early 1960s. In the end, however, she lost her battle against depression and disappeared from the scene altogether. It is unclear if she ever tried to seek psychiatric help for her mental problems.

Eve Miller with Kirk Douglas

The End

In August 1973, a week after her 50th birthday, she tried to kill herself once again. This time she did not survive.

Footnote:

  • The newspaper clipping is from the July 22, 1955 Lewiston Evening Journal as archived by Google. It demonstrates that although Miller’s suicide attempt was a news item, she was not yet a really prominent actress.
    The journalist’s assertion that her true name was Marilyn Miller, was mistaken: actually her birth name was Eve Turner.

 


1913: the Feeble-Minded

Locking Them Up

July 19, 1913 – On this date, the British Parliament passed the Mental Deficiency Act. It came into effect a few weeks later, on August 15. This law was introduced because the previous one, the 1886 Idiots Act, was thought to be covering not enough deviant people.

The new law was described as “An Act to make further and better provision for the care of Feeble-minded and other Mentally Defective Persons and to amend the Lunacy Acts.” To the older law’s categories of “Idiots” and “Imbeciles” it added two new categories: the “Feeble-minded Persons” and the “Moral Imbeciles”.

Here is one of the targeted people, photographed in 1908. We don’t know his name but he was a really bad case, according to the original photo subscript: “A mentally instable imbecile suffering from melancholia.

Melancholic imbecile (1908)

Feeble-minded Persons” were those “whose weakness does not amount to imbecility, yet who require care, supervision, or control, for their protection or for the protection of others”. This definition was so wide that it could apply to any kind of serious mental problem or illness.

Moral Imbeciles” were in fact all those who could or would not conform to accepted standards of social decency and responsibility. The kind of people whose behavior disturbed respectable citizens. This group was defined as anyone “displaying mental weakness coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities, and on whom punishment has little or no deterrent effect”.

If any of these people “had been abandoned, neglected, guilty of a crime, in a state institution, habitually drunk” they could be legally locked away. In daily life, this also meant that forced institutionalization could be applied easily to people whose deviant behavior was in fact caused by mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or long-term deep depression.

Here is another one of the target group. Original 1908 subscript: “A pronounced imbecile; quiet and well-behaved, but idle and untidy.

Untidy Imbecile (1908)

Result

In the interwar years (1918-1939) over 60,000 English people with very different problems were locked in institutions under this law. Some of them probably for their own good, but there also were many lock-ups that we today would find questionable.

With some modifications, the law remained in effect until 1959. Here is the official form that doctors used in the 1950s to lock someone in an institution. It still referred to the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act:

Lock-away Form (1950s)

Footnote:

  • The patient portraits (and the subscripts) are from a 1908 book by the London doctor Alfred Frank Tredgold (1870-1952), an important expert who was active in the National Association for the Feeble-minded, and as adviser for the Royal Commission on the Feeble-minded that helped prepare the 1913 law. He had started his career as an asylum doctor.
     
    Tredgold’s book contained a whole series of portraits of what he considered typical “feeble-minded” patients. To see them all, download the book as a PDF from archive.org: A.F. Tredgold, Mental deficiency (amentia), published New York 1908.

 


1858: A Mad Hatter

July 16, 1858 – On this day, fiercely religious but mentally unstable hat maker Boston Corbett (26) used a pair of scissors to castrate himself. He did this because he wanted to make himself immune against the temptations of street prostitutes.

Having castrated himself, he ate something and then went to a prayer meeting before seeking medical help.

Boston CorbettCorbett as a Union army sergeant, 1865

The phrase “mad as a hatter” did exist for a reason. At that time, hatters used a process called “carroting” to make felt from furry animal skins. It involved treating the material with an orange-colored mercury dilution, and then heating them in an oven. This felt-making process (and the lack of ventilation in many workshops) exposed the hat maker to highly poisonous mercury fumes.

Once all the poisonous mercury kept accumulating in the body, it brought symptoms such as trembling (known as “hatters’ shakes”), loss of coordination, slurred speech, loosening of teeth, memory loss, irritability, depression, anxiety, and in the ultimate stage, insanity: the Mad Hatter Syndrome.

Later Life

Most of these hapless hatters remained anonymous victims. We happen to know a little about Corbett because seven years later he would fire one single shot that instantly made him famous.

On April 16, 1865, having enlisted as a Union soldier, Corbett was a sergeant in the cavalry company that surrounded the fugitive John Wilkes Booth, the killer of President Abraham Lincoln. Ignoring orders to take the assassin alive, Corbett impulsively shot Booth in the barn where he had been hiding.

Discharged from the army a few months later, Corbett initially returned to his work as a hatter. Over time, his behavior became ever more weird, unpredictable and paranoid; he sometimes threatened other people with his gun. After one such incident in Kansas in 1887, he was arrested, declared insane, and put in the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. This asylum had been established just eight years before.

The Topeka Asylum in 1886

Within a year, in 1888, Corbett managed to escape from the asylum by jumping on a horse that a visitor had left unguarded at the entrance. He ended up in eastern Minnesota, where he was last known to live in a self-built cabin in the forests near Hinckley.

In September 1894, a wildfire in these pine forests grew into a huge firestorm (known as “The Great Hinckley Fire”) that destroyed a large area including the town of Hinckley itself. Corbett is thought to have perished (at the age of 61 or 62) in this fire. His name figures in an official list of the victims.

Footnotes:

  • Corbett’s real first name was Thomas. After his conversion to Methodism in the 1850s, he changed it to Boston – the city where a street preacher had converted him.
  • In the 19th century, mercury was also often used as a crude medicine for syphilis. Syphilis could by itself, in its final stages, lead to insanity too.
    So the result of a mercury treatment could be just as bad as the illness itself. In many such cases it was hard to say if the insanity was a consequence of the syphilis, or the result of the mercury treatment.

 


1974: Christine Chubbuck

Live Suicide

July 15, 1974 – This was the day when local Sarasota TV news host Christine Chubbuck (29) interrupted her early morning live show by killing herself in a spectacular way. During an incidental break caused by a jammed film, she told her viewers:

 
“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.”
 

She reached for a gun in her handbag, put it to the back of her head and shot herself right in front of the camera, smashing violently forward onto her news desk and then sliding down to the floor. It took many viewers a minute to grasp that what they just had seen was not some kind of morbid joke, but real.

Chubbuck was rushed to hospital and died in the evening of the same day.

Christine Chubbuck

I’m not going to rehash more of this here. All of it has already been discussed many times, exhaustively. Just search Google for “Christine Chubbuck” and you’ll find thousands of sites describing and interpreting exactly what happened, and why. Personally I think the “why” will forever remain a matter of conjecture.

As a fairly random example, one of the more complete descriptions of Chubbuck’s life and suicide can be found at the entertainment history blog A Trip Down Memory Lane by David Lobosco: Christine Chubbuck: Tragedy in the News.

Two Remarks

Let me add just two remarks to what all others already said about her.

1. Christine Chubbuck suffered from chronic depression. Four years before (in 1970) she had already made a suicide attempt by overdose. She had been seeing a psychiatrist for a long time. Her mother knew about her mental problems.

Many of those writing about her do suppose that her depression, and ultimately her suicide, was primarily caused by the fact that she was lonely, that she had never had a good relationship with a close friend.

But this is a way too easy interpretation. People overlook the fact that it may just as well have been the other way around: her relationship problems being a consequence of her being chronically depressed.

2. In my opinion, one of the most tragic aspects here is that due to the inexplicable way she chose to kill herself, Christine Chubbuck will forever be remembered not for her life, but for her death. I am sure she deserved better.

Footnote:

  • In case you wonder: no, there is no video of the fatal news show. Home video recorders were not yet common. The only known recording was the studio’s official master tape, which later was given to Christine’s family. They destroyed it.
    So however morbid your interest, don’t bother to start a search on Youtube.

 


1933: Raymond Roussel

A Case of OCPD

July 14, 1933 – Today, French poet and novelist Raymond Roussel (56) committed suicide in a hotel in Palermo, Sicily. He took an overdose of barbiturates: Veronal, which at the time was popular medication in cases of insomnia or anxiety.

Raymond Roussel

In his early twenties, in 1897, Roussel had already sought therapeutic help from the famous, pioneering French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. But he kept suffering from “nervous illness” all his life.

Today, his primary mental problem would very probably have been diagnosed as OCPD: obsessive–compulsive personality disorder. This is a personality disorder with a strong preoccupation with orderliness and perfectionism, often combined with phobias and the urge to totally control oneself and one’s environment.

Eccentric

Roussel’s novels and long poems were based on creative but puzzling word associations, full of truly weird fantasies but difficult to read. He considered himself a genius but never became popular, although he influenced avantgarde surrealists.

His dandy lifestyle was very eccentric. The heir of a millionaire stockbroker, he spent most of his money to satisfy his peculiar needs. For example, because of his germ phobia he rarely wore the same clothes twice: he used a collar only once, neckties three times, and a suit or overcoat never more than fifteen times. His employees also had very strict orders on how to prepare and present his food.

Roussel was a closet homosexual with a preference for rough sex with uneducated laborers and sailors: in view of his phobias, this may have caused some internal conflicts. To keep up appearances, he paid a woman companion (Charlotte Dufrène) to publicly pose as his lover.

Roussel's huge camperThe camper used by Roussel in the 1920s

He liked to travel, but did not really like to leave the safe, controlled environment of his own home. In 1924 he solved this problem by designing a “land yacht” that he had custom-built on the chassis of a Saurer truck: one of the world’s first true RVs. The huge vehicle had two fully furnished rooms, an electricity generator, and (in the front cabin) fold-out bunks for two chauffeurs and a valet.

Roussel killed himself at a point when he had nearly exhausted his fortune. But even if you consider this a possible cause for his suicide, we still can say that basically, his mental problems (his extreme OCPD, perhaps compounded by an inability to accept his own homosexuality) were at the root of his tragic fate.

Footnotes:

  • A well-known modern representation of a person with OCPD is Adrian Monk, the main detective character in the 2002-2009 Monk TV series, played very well (with all obsessive-control and phobic traits) by actor Tony Shalhoub. In fact, this series may have helped to improve the public’s perception of OCPD.
  • A fascinating view of Roussel’s unique traveling vehicle, in French but with interior photos, can be found here: La maison roulante de Raymond Roussel (“the rolling home of Raymond Roussel”).
  • Roussel’s two best known novels are Impressions d’Afrique (1910) and Locus Solus (1914). For recent English translations, see the Roussel page at Amazon.
    To get a glimpse of his work, the first 20 pages of the translated Impressions of Africa can be downloaded as a free PDF.

 


1867: Lightner Whitmer

A Pioneering Psychologist

Lightner WitmerJune 28, 1867 – Birth date of American psychologist Lightner Witmer (birth name David L. Witmer).

Witmer was the one who in 1896 founded the world’s very first Psychological Clinic, at the University of Pennsylvania. His innovative clinic was intended mainly for studying and treating children with serious mood and behavior problems.

Witmer was also the one who (at the same time) introduced and defined the term “clinical psychology”.

He saw this primarily as a method of scientific research, more than practical problem-solving:

 
“Although clinical psychology is clearly related to medicine, it is quite as closely related to sociology and pedagogy. [...] Clinical psychology is not a medical psychology. I have borrowed the word ‘clinical’ from medicine, because it is the best term I can find to indicate the character of the method which I deem necessary for this work. Words seldom retain their original significance, and clinical medicine, is not what the word implies – the work of a practicing physician at the bedside of a patient. The term ‘clinical’ implies a method, and not a locality.”
 

But the essence of all his work was his conviction that once this scientific “clinical” psychology was established, it could and should be used to help people overcome their personal difficulties in life.

Problem children were often brought to Witmer’s Psychological Clinic at the university by worried school teachers or parents. On admittance, every child was thoroughly diagnosed to make sure that no physical problems were at the root of the mental problems.

Witmer spoke about these children not as “patients” but as “children”. He tried to analyze (sometimes experimentally) what was wrong on the individual level: to help them overcome things like speech problems, sleep disturbances, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, truancy and more. He was also interested in problems that we today would assign more to psychiatry than to psychology, such as delusions.

In many respects Witmer was ahead of his time, and not just because he worked with what we today might label as children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). He also was one of the first who strongly opposed the uncritical use of standard intelligence tests to measure a child’s development level or capabilities. He thought (rightly, if you ask me) that such tests were superficial and inadequate.

Fading Away From the Limelight

Lightner WitmerFor about 20 years Witmer was very active, not just leading his clinic but also publicizing about research projects (he even tried to teach an ape to understand language, half a century before the more famous Washoe experiment). He also played an active role in the early development of the American Psychological Association.

But around 1917, when he was fifty, something must have happened that caused a change. We know little about Witmer’s personal life; he always was reticent about that. But 1917 was the year he changed his first name from David to Lightner. And 1917 was also the year he volunteered to work as a Red Cross worker in Europe, that was ravaged by World War I at that time.

When late in 1918 he returned to America, he must have felt unable to continue in the same way as before. Some think the death of his mother may have played an additional role here. Witmer continued to run his clinic, but he stopped profiling himself as a researcher. After 1922 he never wrote an article about psychology anymore: he more or less disappeared from public view.

He just kept working in his clinic, and with a residential school he had founded for problematic children, until his retirement in 1937. When he died in 1956 (aged 89) he was almost completely forgotten. Since the 1990s, people have been rediscovering the importance of his pioneering work.

Footnotes:

 


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