Walter Brown’s Comment

 Johan Schioldann’s History of the Introduction of Lithium into Medicine and Psychiatry:  Birth of Modern Psychopharmacology 1949 
Reviewed by Barry Blackwell


             This is not your everyday review. First, and noticeable right off the bat, it’s very long. Not, I’m sure, the longest book review ever, but at 19 single spaced pages and 10,600 words (not counting references) it’s right up there. And speaking of references - and this may be some sort of record - there are 103. The extraordinary length and bibliography are a mixed bag. On the one hand, given Barry Blackwell’s wit, muscular prose and incisive views, one could argue, plausibly, that there is no such thing as too much Blackwell. But the length might prompt some potential readers to shelve this straight away as TL, DR (too long, didn’t read).    And there is a bit of repetition. Nonetheless, for people interested in lithium, and in particular how it became a treatment, this review in itself, to say nothing of the book, provides a good bit of that history. 

            A few other things set this review apart. Most book reviews come out soon after a book is published. Johan Schioldann’s the “History of the introduction of Lithium into Medicine and Psychiatry” appeared in 2009, almost 10 years ago. The publisher is Adelaide Academic Press, a small Australian company, and the book was not widely publicized or promoted. It got a handful of reviews in psychiatric journals the year after publication, but outside of a small group of lithium aficionados it is not well known. I heard about it by word of mouth several years ago because - full disclosure coming - I was starting research for a book I’m now in the midst of writing about the discovery and development of lithium treatment and Sam Gershon, knowing of my project, pointed me to Schioldann’s book. Although Blackwell’s appraisal comes later than the conventional review, it is most welcome; it draws attention to a book that, although little known and flawed by bias and an idiosyncratic agenda, makes an important contribution to the history of lithium.

            Blackwell’s review is notable as well for its restraint regarding his own opinions about who did what regarding lithium. He played a significant part in lithium’s development as a treatment, noted in this book, and he has not been shy about expressing his opinions; Blackwell has had a good bit to say on this website and elsewhere about his role and that of others, including John Cade, the main subject of this book. But in this review, he reserves his own take on lithium’s history and Cade’s role in it for the very end, directing the lion’s share of his comments to the contents and arguments of the book at hand. I don’t know that I could show such restraint. 

            As Blackwell points out, Schioldann devotes much of his book to “proving” that rather than John Cade, Carl and Fritz Lange, fellow Danes who treated some depressed patients with lithium in the late 19th century, deserve the credit for discovering lithium therapy; Schioldann suggests that Cade “rediscovered” lithium therapy.  Blackwell comments fairly and lucidly on this matter and on Schioldann’s more serious charge - implied repetitively - that Cade knew of the Lange’s previous work with lithium but deliberately failed to mention it. As Blackwell says the author advances “slender evidence” in support of this notion.

            Yet Blackwell is no apologist for the conventional narrative of lithium’s discovery. He faithfully records Schioldann’s chronicle of Cade’s blemishes - concealment -  of his first patient’s death from lithium toxicity and failure to acknowledge the crucial contributions of Trautner and his colleagues among them - and he doesn’t shrink from the incoherence in Cade’s account of his guinea pig research and how it evolved to a clinical trial.

            This review would benefit from some copy editing. As one example, the section sub-headed “Back to Norway” should be “Back to Denmark.”  But more importantly, this review provides a fine description of a book which, while hardly impartial, is a great source of information about lithium therapy and those who discovered it.


November 9, 2017