Category: History and mental health

1842: Crawford Long

Sweet dreams or maybe not?

March 30, 1842 – On this day, surgeon Crawford Williamson Long (1815-1878) in Jefferson, Georgia removed 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 (from amputations to assisted childbirth) less painful, and therefore easier and safer as well. Even dentists began using it to knock out their patients.

It was however flammable and had several side effects such as post-anesthetic nausea and vomiting, so it is no longer used today. Later alternatives were methyl propyl ether (Neothyl) and methoxyflurane (Penthrane).

In modern clinical psychiatry, full anesthesia is usually given to patients before an ECT treatment (electroconvulsive therapy, known to most of us as electroshocks).

Since the 1980s, the most used anesthetic with ECT is Propofol (also known as Diprivan). This milk-like fluid is administered intravenously. It works quickly and has relatively few after-effects.

As a rule such anesthesia in hospitals is perfectly safe, but private use of Propofol is more dangerous: in a large enough dose, it can be lethal. The death of pop star Michael Jackson (2009) was caused primarily by a Propofol overdose.

In 2013 in the USA the state of Mississippi wanted to use Propofol for executions, but the European Union refused to export it for that purpose.

1853: Gilbert Ballet Mental Health Story

A Transition Pioneer

March 29, 1853 – Birth date of Gilbert Ballet. If I left it at this, you would probably ask: who on earth was Gilbert Ballet?

Gilbert Louis Simeon Ballet was one of what I like to call the “transition pioneers”: the psychiatrists who between about 1880 and 1920 worked very hard within institutions and universities, pushing psychiatry out of the still somewhat unscientific (to some, almost shady) corner where it had formerly been. They helped to transform it into a respectable, scientific discipline: a recognized part of the medical curriculum.

This is a group of early psychiatrists that is largely forgotten now, because they themselves brought no shocking or great innovations; but they made a wider public understand the value of professional psychiatry. They generated esteem not just for themselves, but for their line of work.

Frenchman Gilbert Ballet had been trained himself by one of the earlier innovators, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893). In 1900, Ballet became a professor in psychiatry.

In 1904 he founded what can be called the first French university-supported psychiatry clinic, as a department in the old Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris. This clinic was set up specifically for observation of delusional patients, and of course to offer beginning physicians a training in the practice of psychiatry.

Reaching Out

In 1909, Ballet started a special tradition at the Sainte-Anne hospital in Paris: every Sunday morning he gave a public lesson.

In some of these lectures he presented an actual patient with some kind of mental illness, so people could understand what various kinds of mental illness meant both to the patients and to the psychiatrist trying to treat them. Perhaps Ballet also tried in this way to counter the prejudice that the “insane” were hardly human, or beings to be afraid of.

One of the people who followed these public lectures still vividly remembered Ballet many years after his death:

“Every Sunday morning he gave his lessons, which attracted a large and very varied audience. There were old and already retired doctors, students in the humanities or philosophy, old ladies, elegant young women. If so many people voluntarily attended these Sunday lectures, it was because Gilbert Ballet spoke well and easily, and he knew how to get everyone’s attention. He had charm, finesse and wit. Often he adjusted his glasses with his right hand while drawing an ironic conclusion with a smile. And he knew how to bring an illustrative anecdote just when things would become a little dull… It was a pleasure to hear him speak.”

In short, what we have here, in the early 1900s (a time with no sound movies or TV shows) was one of the first occasions where a professional psychiatrist deliberately tried to appeal directly to a larger public.


Ballet was an interesting figure in many other ways too. He wrote about very specific types of illness, such as “chronic hallucinatory psychosis” that affected elderly people, about hypochondria and paranoia. He also wrote about the history of medicine.

But perhaps most important was the Traité de Pathologie Mentale (Treatise on Mental Illness) that he published in 1903. For half a century, this would be the primary handbook on psychiatry in France. Doctors could also use it for diagnosis, like psychiatrists use the DSM-5 today.

– Ballet died in 1916, aged 62. As I said, people like him were no true innovators. But I think we may call them pioneers just as well.

1941: Virginia Woolf Mental Health Story

The Burden of Illness

March 28, 1941 – This was the day when famous English writer and feminist Virginia Woolf (59) filled the pockets of her coat with stones and walked into the River Ouse to drown herself. It took three weeks before her body was found.

She is remembered especially for her novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and her reflecting book A Room of One’s Own.

Woolf (original name Adeline Virginia Stephen) suffered from periods of deep depression all her life. Around 1910 she had been admitted three times to a “private nursing home for women with nervous disorder”.

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 30 years after her death.

Woolf’s last letter to her husband shows clearly how much she suffered from the awareness of being mentally ill, and from the fear of her illness getting worse – and also from the typical self-deprecation that comes with depression:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

An Appeal

I wish I could say some nice things here about Virginia Woolf’s work as a novelist, or give you some striking quote, like I’ve done with several other novelists and poets here. But I can’t.

I think it’s best to be honest about this.

I don’t like Virginia Woolf as a writer. To me, her writing feels as a somewhat artificial construction that’s often overgrown with a confusing ivy of words. I’ve tried to read her a few times, long ago, but I never managed to finish one of her books..

Today, preparing this post, I read some pages of Mrs. Dalloway again. One of the things this novel is famous for is her description of Septimus, a character suffering from World War I “shell shock”. But to me, Woolf’s ivy of words kept standing in the way.

I’m sorry for this, because I surely can identify with her as a person. I’ve been depressed enough to attempt suicide myself. Twice. So I think I do have the right to say that I can understand how desperate and forlorn she must have felt when locked in depression.

Maybe you (yes I mean you, reading this post) are more capable than I am when it comes to appreciating Virginia Woolf’s work? You’re welcome to add something here to illustrate her qualities as a writer.

In Stone

This is Virginia Woolf’s tombstone in the garden of her house in Sussex. The inscription says:

Beneath this tree are
buried the ashes of
Born January 25 1882
Died March 28 1941
Death is the enemy. Against you
I will fling myself, unvanquished
and unyielding o Death!
The waves broke on the shore.

Virginia Woolf tomb stone saying

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén