Richard Smith: In search of scandal in Scotland

richard_smith_2014I’m on my way to Dumfries to investigate the state of the NHS in that region, and the thought of the town is making me remember when I travelled there in 1974, 42 years ago, to investigate what I and a friend believed to be a scandal, a scandal of those times.

I was a co-editor of Synapse, the journal of Edinburgh medical students that we imaginatively and wittily renamed Prolapse and Perhaps. My co-editor, Peter Bloomfield (later a consultant cardiologist in Edinburgh), and I didn’t want the journal to be a “third division Lancet” filled with tedious articles rejected by other journals but rather a fearless, campaigning newspaper that spoke truth to the powers of Edinburgh medicine. We campaigned on issues like the poor quality of education we were receiving and the need for decent education on sex problems, and boldly we put the first “fuck” in the journal, which led to me being summoned by the professor of pathology for a wigging.

We were always on the lookout for scandals, and one of the great issues of the time was homosexuality. In 1974 male homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland, although it had been legalised in England. It was in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association held a vote of its members on whether homosexuality should be removed from the DSM: 5854 voted yes, and 3810 no. It wasn’t finally removed until 1987.

Anyway word reached us in the Synapse editorial office that a homosexual in Dumfries had been given electric aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality. The 60s and 70s were the heyday of the anti-psychiatry movement: Ronnie Laing was arguing that it was normal to be crazy in a crazy world; and the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962 with the powerful film following in 1975. Yet psychiatrists had been trying to “cure” homosexuality by showing gay men pictures of naked men and giving them an electric shock at the same time.

That such a barbaric and outmoded treatment was being used in Scotland to “cure” what all right thinking Edinburgh medical students knew to be something normal was outrageous and just the right sort of scandal for the fearless Synapse to cover. We imagined the righteous furore that would follow our revelations.

So Peter and I contacted the victim in Dumfries and set off. We hitch-hiked down, and the victim kindly agreed to let us stay with him and his friends. Our disappointment began when he opened the door: he was fat, dressed in a cardigan, and looked like somebody’s dull uncle without any signs of homosexuality or having been brutalised. We entered his flat and were offered tea. Embarrassingly he assumed that Peter and I were a homosexual couple, and somehow we never managed to make clear that we were vigorous and enthusiastic heterosexuals. We kept well apart in the bed we had to share.

Despite the unpromising beginning we began to question the victim on his dreadful experience, but it slowly became clear that he hadn’t had aversion therapy at all. Rather he was depressed and had been treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which was much commoner in those days than now. There was no story. We chatted to the victim and his friends, went to the pub and drank six pints of beer (which was also normal in those days and still is for many), slept badly, and hitch-hiked back to Edinburgh with hangovers. Synapse would have to look elsewhere for a great scandal.

There is an aftermath to this story. The BMJ blogs editor thought to herself “do The BMJ‘s readers really want to read about something that happened nearly 50 years ago?”  and suggested that I bring the blog up to date by describing how what is now called “conversion therapy” continues. I didn’t know that it did, but it does, although not much, I suspect, in Britain. The electrodes are gone, but there are therapists who offer to convert people from homosexuals into heterosexuals through various techniques, including counselling, social skills training, psychoanalysis, and spiritual interventions such as “prayer and group support and pressure.” I find myself wondering whether anybody wants to go the other way—but probably not as American religious fundamentalists are the group most enthusiastic about conversion therapy. I can imagine that if you are a gay fundamentalist you might hope to be converted.

But the American Psychiatric Association regards conversion therapy as unethical because it suggests that homosexuality is indeed a disease, people can be successfully “converted,” and homosexuals are somehow lesser people.

I also discovered during my time in Dumfries that there was at least one psychiatrist in the 60s and 70s in the town who did try to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals, although not, I think, through using electricity. Synapse missed the story.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.