Issues with early electroconvulsion therapy included seizures leading to full convulsions, which would occasionally fracture or dislocate patients’ long bones, and cognitive side effects such as memory loss. Experimentation by medical practitioners with muscle relaxants and anaesthesia aided the first problem, whilst a constant current, brief pulse machine was developed in the 1970s and eventually replaced sinusoidal current machines as it reduced cognitive side effects. Alongside these changes, the increased use of drugs to treat mental illness reduced the overall use of electroconvulsion therapy from the 1960s, which led to its modern usage as a therapy limited to specific circumstances.
Throughout the development of electroconvulsion therapy, experimentation with patients was thus central to its improvement and development, and that experimentation could take on many forms. This nineteenth-century dental chair appears to have been converted for use as an electroconvulsion therapy machine by an experimental psychiatrist at the Brookwood Hospital, an asylum in Surrey, who owned the chair in the mid-twentieth century. Whilst there is little specific information available about this object, there are several clues that point to its use as an electroconvulsion therapy machine – parts of the chair such as the seat and footrest have been replaced with wood to avoid possible conduction and there is a removable head electrode attached to the chair. Uses for the chair might have simply been to strap down patients whilst they underwent treatment. But the converted chair may have also enabled the psychiatrist to use different apparatus on patients – trialling both sinusoidal and constant current machines for example.
What do you think about the development of electroconvulsion therapy? Do you think such experimentation on patients by individual psychiatrists was appropriate? Experiment is often an important way to improve therapeutics: what are the ethical issues that surround experimental therapeutics?
The chair was owned by Brookwood Hospital, the second county asylum in Surrey. The hospital, near Woking, opened as Brookwood Asylum in 1867, becoming Brookwood Hospital in 1919. The chair design originates from the 1890s (original design shown in the black and white illustration), so may have been purchased by the asylum then before later conversion. The hospital archives are held at Surrey Records Office.
The chair was purchased by the Thackray Museum of Medicine at auction in 1995. Object reference 583.001.
The Thackray Museum of Medicine is based in Leeds, UK, and houses the collection of the Thackray family, who developed a major medical supply firm over the course of the twentieth century. The museum was opened in 1997 to enable the wider public to learn more about the story of medicine and has recently undergone a multimillion-pound refurbishment.
For more information visit www.thackraymuseum.co.uk