Rare footage of physical treatments in psychiatry, 1957

I’ve just found a remarkable documentary on YouTube from a 1957 BBC series called ‘The Hurt Mind’. The programme attempts to de-stigmatise mental health for the public but also documents some of the most controversial treatments in the history of psychiatry.

The programme was an edition of a then pioneering five-part BBC series on mental health and this was the episode that specifically dealt with ‘physical treatments’ – that is, treatments which directly affect the brain, such as ECT, leucotomy, insulin coma therapy and abreaction.

This was before the days when pills were widely used in psychiatry – there were no antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilisers and the only tranquilisers were heavyweight barbiturates, as benzodiazapines had yet to become available.

The psychiatrists on the programme are not named, but if I’m not mistaken, the main interviewee is William Sargant, who has a bit of sinister reputation for his enthusiasm for brain altering treatments, his interest in ‘brain washing’, and rumours he was funded by the CIA – as we’ve discussed previously.

Sargant literally wrote the book on physical treatments (titled An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry) and the programme presents them in the most biased possible light, in line with Sargant’s enthusiasms, by dismissing side-effects and selectively presenting single cases of recovered happy patients.

For those more familiar with the frontal lobotomy – popularised by American surgeon Walter Freeman, which involved hammering an ice pick under the orbits of the eyes – you’ll notice that the British version of the operation, the leucotomy, was substantially different in its approach and involved drilling small holes in the skull.

The programme also depicts abreaction, where a patient with a post-traumatic condition is given a drug – often barbiturate, or, in this case, ether – and encouraged to talk about the difficult event.

The procedure was based on the Freudian notion that emotional pain can be repressed and can ‘build up’ and cause difficulties in other areas – although a drug can be used to help break down the defences and releases the emotion in a healthy catharsis.

I suspect that the Billy Bunter-like psychiatrist who discusses and demonstrates abreaction is Eliot Slater, although I have no idea of the identity of the bespectacled doctor who discusses leucotomy (do leave a comment if you know).

The programme is classic post-war BBC: chaps with posh accents talk to cor blimey guv’ner commoners, and there are plenty uncomfortable pauses and a shaky set. As a piece of history, though, it is fascinating.

It also turns out that BBC and the Maudsley Hospital attempted to see how effective the programme was in educating the public and published a brief article in the British Medical Journal which analysed the sorts of letters that got sent in by viewers.

Interestingly, William Sargant wrote to the publication saying that he was a medical adviser to the series and had “on rare occasions appeared anonymously on such programmes” and defended how even-handed it was.

Regardless of your interest in the characters, however, the video is a rare insight into how these treatments were actually carried out.

Parts one, two, three and four of ‘The Hurt Mind’ on physical treatments.
Link to details of the series from the British Film Institute.
Link to good Wikipedia page on William Sargant.

5 thoughts on “Rare footage of physical treatments in psychiatry, 1957”

  1. Things haven’t changed so much. See, for example, the book “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America”, by Robert Whitaker. The author details the pseudoscientific basis for psychopharmacology. He also outlines the harmful effects of these drugs (and, no, I’m not a member of that religious cult that is opposed to all psychiatric medicine).

    Here’s a link to the Amazon page for Whitaker’s book:


  2. Hey, thanks a lot the video is fantastic!

    But I have to agree with Alex, things are not that much different today. Yes, we overcame the “bloodletting” times of psychiatry but still we put people on drugs for many minor things – and often the side effects are so strong that people are unable to live alone, not to speak of the characters, which were two of the main problems of those now ancient physical treatments too.

    Time for more research and understanding and then we might also get over these problems….

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