What historians and clinicians can learn from the history of medicine: the example of fatal catatonia

Edward Shorter


The utility of medical history to present-day clinicians is not always apparent. One can safely practice cardiology or nephrology without knowing the history of these disciplines. Yet in psychiatry, with its long history of shifting – and often forgotten – diagnoses, engaging in what historians call disease biography and clinicians term historical epidemiology may be helpful in the identification and treatment of uncommon medical conditions.
In this paper we consider the historical origins of malignant catatonia. This acute and often fatal syndrome was identified in 2003 by Max Fink and Michael Alan Taylor, yet remains an unfamiliar diagnosis to many psychiatrists. Understanding this illness, with its various forms of frenzy and stupor, is important today because police and security officers must frequently deal with its victims, and the disorder often ends fatally although today it is readily treatable with benzodiazepines and electroconvulsive therapy.


delirious mania; historical epidemiology; malignant catatonia; retrospective diagnosis

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