On This Day … 20 April

People (Births)

  • 1745 – Philippe Pinel, French physician and psychiatrist (d. 1826).
  • 1915 – Joseph Wolpe, South African psychotherapist and physician (d. 1997).
  • 1920 – Frances Ames, South African neurologist, psychiatrist, and human rights activist (d. 2002).

Philippe Pinel

Philippe Pinel (20 April 1745 to 25 October 1826) was a French physician who was instrumental in the development of a more humane psychological approach to the custody and care of psychiatric patients, referred to today as moral therapy. He also made notable contributions to the classification of mental disorders and has been described by some as “the father of modern psychiatry”.

An 1809 description of a case that Pinel recorded in the second edition of his textbook on insanity is regarded by some as the earliest evidence for the existence of the form of mental disorder later known as dementia praecox or schizophrenia, although Emil Kraepelin is generally accredited with its first conceptualisation.

Joseph Wolpe

Joseph Wolpe (20 April 1915 to 04 December 1997 in Los Angeles) was a South African psychiatrist and one of the most influential figures in behaviour therapy.

Wolpe grew up in South Africa, attending Parktown Boys’ High School and obtaining his MD from the University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1956 Wolpe was awarded a Ford Fellowship and spent a year at Stanford University in the Center for Behavioral Sciences, subsequently returning to South Africa but permanently moving to the United States in 1960 when he accepted a position at the University of Virginia.

In 1965 Wolpe accepted a position at Temple University.

One of the most influential experiences in Wolpe’s life was when he enlisted in the South African army as a medical officer. Wolpe was entrusted to treat soldiers who were diagnosed with what was then called “war neurosis” but today is known as post traumatic stress disorder. The mainstream treatment of the time for soldiers was based on psychoanalytic theory, and involved exploring the trauma while taking a hypnotic agent – so-called narcotherapy. It was believed that having the soldiers talk about their repressed experiences openly would effectively cure their neurosis. However, this was not the case. It was this lack of successful treatment outcomes that forced Wolpe, once a dedicated follower of Freud, to question psychoanalytic therapy and search for more effective treatment options. Wolpe is most well known for his reciprocal inhibition techniques, particularly systematic desensitisation, which revolutionised behavioural therapy.

A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Wolpe as the 53rd most cited psychologist of the 20th century, an impressive accomplishment accentuated by the fact that Wolpe was a psychiatrist.

Frances Ames

Frances Rix Ames (20 April 1920 to 11 November 2002) was a South African neurologist, psychiatrist, and human rights activist, best known for leading the medical ethics inquiry into the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died from medical neglect after being tortured in police custody. When the South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC) declined to discipline the chief district surgeon and his assistant who treated Biko, Ames and a group of five academics and physicians raised funds and fought an eight-year legal battle against the medical establishment. Ames risked her personal safety and academic career in her pursuit of justice, taking the dispute to the South African Supreme Court, where she eventually won the case in 1985.

Born in Pretoria and raised in poverty in Cape Town, Ames became the first woman to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Cape Town in 1964. Ames studied the effects of cannabis on the brain and published several articles on the subject. Seeing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis on patients in her own hospital, she became an early proponent of legalisation for medicinal use. She headed the neurology department at Groote Schuur Hospital before retiring in 1985, but continued to lecture at Valkenberg and Alexandra Hospital. After apartheid was dismantled in 1994, Ames testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about her work on the “Biko doctors” medical ethics inquiry. In 1999, Nelson Mandela awarded Ames the Star of South Africa, the country’s highest civilian award, in recognition of her work on behalf of human rights.

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