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J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2007 Apr;62(2):213-43. Epub 2006 Nov 14.

Performing a cure for schizophrenia: insulin coma therapy on the wards.

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1
Harvard Medical School, 47 Harrison Street, Brookline, Massachusetts 02446, USA. deborah_doroshow@hms.harvard.edu

Abstract

Most historians of psychiatry regard insulin coma therapy (ICT) either as an embarrassing stumble on the path to modern biological psychiatry or as one member of a long line of somatic therapies used to treat mental illness in the mid-twentieth century. This article explores the ICT era, roughly 1933-60, as a key moment in the development of American psychiatry. Developed only ten years after insulin had been embraced as a "miracle drug" for the treatment of diabetes, ICT was perceived by psychiatrists as a means of bringing their field closer to mainstream medicine, particularly to neurology. In addition, the story of ICT reveals how a treatment never quite proven on paper was unquestionably efficacious in the local world in which it was performed. An institutionally-based treatment, ICT was administered in a specific area of the mental hospital deemed the insulin unit, a room with its own staff, practices, and attitudes toward mental illness. There, psychiatrists often experienced wondrous recoveries of individual, formerly intractable patients. These intense personal experiences allowed psychiatrists to feel truly efficacious, enabling them to reinvent themselves as medical doctors rather than behavioral and disciplinary supervisors. The confidence they derived from this capacity, along with the operating room-like setting of the insulin unit, the unit's specialized staffing and group bond, and the availability of both risk-assessment tests and a medley of treatments that countered side effects and complications, allowed ICT to be understood as an efficacious treatment for schizophrenia within the local world in which it was administered.

PMID:
17105748
DOI:
10.1093/jhmas/jrl044
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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