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Electrotherapy for Melancholia: The Pioneering Contributions of Benjamin Franklin and Giovanni Aldini

Bolwig, Tom G. MD, DMSc*; Fink, Max MD

doi: 10.1097/YCT.0b013e318191b6e3
Original Studies

The electrical induction of seizures with a therapeutic aim began in 1938, but the history of electric currents to relieve mental illness began 2 centuries earlier with the pioneering work of the Italian Giovanni Aldini and the American Benjamin Franklin.

These early experiments are described demonstrating that the electrical force encouraged hopeful applications. This history emphasizes the unique contribution in the induction of grand mal seizures as the therapeutic basis rather than the role of electricity alone.

From the *Department of Psychiatry, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark; and †State University of New York at Stony Brook, Long Island, NY.

Received for publication September 22, 2008; accepted September 24, 2008.

Reprints: Tom G. Bolwig, MD, DMSc, Institute of Neuropsychiatry, Rigshospitalet, 9 Blegdamsvej, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark (e-mail:

Static electricity, which has been known as early as the sixth century ad, refers to the accumulation of excess electrical charge in a device with poor electrical conductivity (an insulator), in such a way that the charge accumulates.

The Leyden jar, developed by van Musschenbroek in 1746, stores large amounts of static electricity. It is made up of a glass jar, which insulates 2 conductors formed by thin sheets of tin foil, 1 wrapped outside the jar and the other lining the inside. A brass rod terminating in an external knob passes through a wooden stopper and is connected to the inner coat by a loose chain. When an electrical charge is applied to the external knob, positive and negative charges accumulate in the 2 metal coatings, but they do not discharge because of the glass insulator between them. The jars were the first devices able to store an electric charge.

The voltaic pile is the first electrical battery, invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800. When different metals and chemicals come in contact with each other, they may produce an electrical current. Volta placed several pairs of alternating copper and zinc discs separated by cloth or cardboard soaked in saline to increase conductivity, producing an electric current.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.