ECT and Election Time


Who remembers the Eagleton affaire. Neither did I until I read this article: History, power and electricity: american popular magazine accounts of electroconvulsive therapy, 1940-2005. Senator Thomas Francis Eagleton of Missouri was the running mate for George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for the election for the Presidency of the United States in 1972. He had to step back because of his disclosure having had ECT in the mid 60’s.

The drama began early in the week when Eagleton was forced to reveal that on three occasions, in 1960, 1964 and 1966, he had been hospitalized in St. Louis or at the Mayo Clinic for nervous exhaustion. When the McGovern camp learned that the Knight newspapers were ready to break a story on Eagleton’s medical history (see THE PRESS), McGovern and his running mate decided to break the news themselves at a press conference in Sylvan Lake, S. Dak. Eagleton described himself as “an intense and hard-fighting person,” and added: “I sometimes push myself too far.” After his successful 1960 campaign for attorney general of Missouri, he was hospitalized in St. Louis “on my own volition” for about four weeks for “exhaustion and fatigue.” He spent four days at the Mayo Clinic in 1964, and about three weeks in 1966. On two of those occasions, in 1960 and 1966, he underwent electric-shock therapy for depression. Now, he said, “I have every confidence that I’ve learned how to pace myself and know the limits of my own endurance.”

Was he the only one with a psychiatric history in those days?

Past U.S. Presidents have had their emotional problems: John Adams had several nervous breakdowns, Franklin Pierce was an alcoholic, Abraham Lincoln had recurring periods of near-suicidal depression, Rutherford Hayes as a young man wandered about the streets of Sandusky, Ohio, weeping uncontrollably. Lesser officials have also been afflicted. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal committed suicide in 1949 while hospitalized for involutional melancholia. Alabama Governor George Wallace, who announced last week that he would not seek a third-party nomination this year, still receives a 10% disability check from the Veterans Administration because of “psychoneurosis” incurred during World War II. As for Eagleton’s illness, medical experts know neither what causes depression nor why electric-shock therapy is effective against it, but most of them insist that it is a relatively common ailment and by no means a permanent disability

The Time coverage of the Eagleton affaire was generally negative especially about having had ECT. It portrayed ECT as a relic from the past. The accompanying photograph used was made in 1949. They even compared the stimulus characteristics to those used for the electric chair. This publication came in a time that the anti psychiatry movement was at it’s peak.

The coverage in Newsweek was of a completely different nature. The Newsweek article emphasised the ways in which modern ECT was a significant improvement over the past practice. The Newsweek coverage was more balanced and sympathetic toward Eagleton. Newsweek doesn’t have a large archive such as Times so I couldn’t verify it.

The article in Time ends with:

While recurrence of depression cannot be ruled out, the fact that Eagleton has gone six years without treatment and has performed effectively in office makes it less likely. Lebensohn says he treated high political figures as long as 20 years ago without noting any later ineffectiveness among them. Some psychiatrists even say that Eagleton may be less likely to break under pressure than those who have never undergone such therapy. A period of depression, the A.P.A. panel insists, does not permanently impair a person’s judgment.

How did he do after his resignation? You can read it on Countenance Blog The Eagleton Affair

How did the press find out about the medical history of Eagleton? DailyKos has an explanation:

However, it was discovered during the Watergate trial that John Ehrlichman, a whitehouse aide, had a safe that contained copies of hospital records of Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton’s treatment for mental illness.

What do you think, is prior psychiatric history of influence in elections in our days?

Articles used:
J Hist Behav Sci. 2008 Jan 14;44(1):1-18 [Epub ahead of print]
History, power, and electricity: American popular magazine accounts of
electroconvulsive therapy, 1940-2005.
Hirshbein L, Sarvananda S.
University of Michigan, Lapeer, Michigan.
PMID: 18196545

Time, August 7, 1972