Aussie Scientist John Cade and the Discovery of Lithium

Anyone’s who’s followed this blog for more than a few minutes will know life around here, to quote the renown philosopher Forest Gump, is most definitely a box of chocolates – hard and soft centers. You never know what you’re gonna git.

This brings us to the fascinating (to me) story of the drug lithium and the Australian scientist who pioneered it’s use in the early 1950’s as a treatment for depression and bi-polar disorder.

As much as it hurts me to say this, if knowing more about this topic sounds not the least appealing, you may want to take a brief sojourn from Scenic Writer’s Shack – for let’s say the next month or so. I intend to employ no less than a fleet of industrial excavators equipped with alloy steel bucket teeth – they’re the ‘diggiest’ – to fully unearth this game-changing chapter of medical/scientific history.

Here we go…

Born in the city of Horsham, 300km northwest of Melbourne, John Cade would grow up to be nothing short of one of the true rock stars of Australian medicine. Wearing his stereotypical thick-framed glasses, he had a professional look reminiscent of ‘Brains’ from the 1960’s tv show THUNDERBIRDS.

He was the son of a psychiatrist in the days when psychiatrists lived on the grounds of what today are referred to as ‘mental health facilities’ but back then were known as asylums.

As a young boy, John Cade was taken from asylum to asylum through his father’s work and observed mentally ill patients every day. Instead of being objects of curiosity or people to fear he was able to regard them as friends with imaginary worlds from a very early age.

Back in this era however, people with serious mental illness lived in a kind of netherworld. Then, it was almost romantically referred to as melancholia; now it would be considered severe clinical depression.

This 10 minute video shows an interview with a young man (who bears a healthy resemblance to ‘Sheldon’ from the television show BIG BANG THEORY) admitted to a U.S psychiatric institution in the 1960’s.

The man says he has an ambition to be a piano player and piano instructor. It’s pretty clear from his ‘flat’ speech and minimal body movement he is suffering from some mental condition. The video, which has attracted close to 50 000 comments, suggests the condition may be catatonic schizophrenia.

As heart-rending and, frankly speaking, harrowing at times as this video may come across at certain moments, on a lighter note, one person after watching it added the comment – “At least he thinks before he speaks unlike most people nowadays.”

Those severely affected by melancholia sometimes fantasied that their brains were rotting, their bowels unmoveable and that life was a farce in need of obliteration.

Another hallmark of institutional care back at this time was that every shade of mental affliction – from alcoholics, epileptics, the brain-injured and vagrants to manics, the depressives and those who imagined their minds were being wirelessly tampered with were all lumped together under the one all-embracing roof. Routine, rigidity and responsibility were the triad of asylum life.

John Cade would himself become a psychiatrist, but not before serving as a Major in the Australian army during World War 2. During this time he survived three and a half years incarcerated in the notoriously hellish conditions of the Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Changi, Singapore. This experience would help shape his theories on human psychology, physiology and mental health care.

After the war ended Cade found himself working at Bundoora Asylum (which closed in 2001 but has since developed a reputation for being haunted) on the outskirts of Melbourne, treating ex-diggers who were afflicted with mental illness.

It was here he began crude experiments examining the urine of patients and injecting guinea pigs with the naturally occurring substance lithium. Cade noticed that when he did this the guinea pigs became calm. After then ingesting it himself and confirming it was safe he began administering it to several test patients at the asylum.

By the start of 1949, John Cade knew he had uncovered something remarkable in lithium, and with his once-ill patients blooming with health, he was ready to break his silence and write up his work for publication.

In his research paper, he would argue that lithium – a simple element on the Periodic table, could tame a specific mental illness – mania. The notion itself was almost unbelievable to many at the time – that lithium, a metal dug from the earth’s crust and made into a solution or a tablet, could do this.

Even the idea that something inanimate, a naturally occurring chemical that had been around since the beginnings of time, could shape a person’s mind and govern his behavior was repugnant and against the natural order of things to the traditionally thinking minds of some doctors.

Many of John’s colleagues saw the source of manic depression as stemming from a disturbed family upbringing. To such psychiatrists, it was a mother’s malevolent word or a father’s brutal fist that twisted a child’s upbringing and caused madness.

John knew his research paper would provoke bitter opposition, particularly among fans of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. He had read Freud (the Austrian neurologist who pioneered the clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst) extensively but rejected his theories. He saw the body and brain as an interconnected chemical laboratory and much preferred the chemical causation theory to explain and treat mental illness.

John Cade’s historic paper was published without fanfare in THE MEDICAL JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIA on the 3rd of September 1949. It was his four page magnum opus. In due course it would be celebrated as that esteemed journal’s (THE MEDICAL JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIA commenced publication in 1856 and today is a peer-reviewed medical gazette published 22 times a year) most cited paper.

This single published paper would forever change the way we think about mental illness.

What exactly is the substance known as lithium? Where does it come from? Was lithium really an ingredient in the soft-drink 7-Up? Is it true John Cade really was the first to pioneer lithium’s use in psychiatric medicine or were there other’s who tried before him? And is lithium still the gold standard in treating mental illness today? These questions and more will be answered in the second part of our inquiry next week.


Research for this write-up used seven separate information sources – including the 2016 John Cade biography FINDING SANITY. I read this book cover to cover a few months back. The most recently written book on the subject was published in August of last year. It’s title is LITHIUM – A DOCTOR , A DRUG AND A BREAKTHROUGH.

Ps. Naturally you deserve a bonus read, right? Click HERE to read a movie review of the film THREE CHRISTS (2020) starring Richard Gere. It tells the story of real-life psychologist Milton Rokeach who conducted a groundbreaking study in the late 1960’s of three psychiatric patients who all firmly believed they were Jesus Christ.

7 thoughts on “Aussie Scientist John Cade and the Discovery of Lithium

  1. Very interesting read, Glen. I had no idea that Litium was the first medication used to treat a mental health condition – I always thought Valium was introduced before. I would be interested in reading his biography as he had such an amazing life.

    I will say, some of the most interesting and action-packed books I’ve read have been about people with bipolar. ‘Manic’ by Terri Cheney, ‘Your voice in my head’ by Emma Forrest (including her dating Colin Farrel for a year) and ‘First we make the beast beautiful’ by Sarah Wilson (an Aussie) are three of my favourites!

    Any lastly, you’ve got the song Litium written by Kurt Cobain, which is a favourite of mine. I’ve read a biography written about him by Charles R Cross and in that it says that he was diagnosed with bipolar. The connection between creativity and bipolar is now well established. Kay Redfield Jamison has discussed this and much more for many years.


  2. Hi Matt,

    My understanding is Valium first entered the U.S marketplace in 1963 but it wasn’t until 1970 lithium did the same. Lithium apparently however had been used ‘unofficially’ as a mood stabilizer as far back as the late 1800’s in countries such as Denmark.

    So interesting all the other points you raised re the long established link between what could be labeled the ‘creative mind’ and mental illness.


  3. Ooh, fascinating, Glen! You really like reading the heavy stuff, huh? Thanks, as always, for an engaging, amusing, enlightening read.

    Boy, my heart went out to that young man in the clip. In my (humble, untrained opinion) he was probably just autistic and also seemed somewhat effeminate, two things people definitely did NOT talk about, much less accept, very well in the past.

    What a brilliant guy Dr. Cade was. He was, in retrospect, absolutely correct to reject Freud and many of his colleagues’ blanket statement conclusions concerning a link between mental illness and family environment. So limited and naive! This guy saw the body/brain connection and understood the chemical interactions involved. Of course he did! Going from asylum to asylum with his father as a kid? He was practically groomed to arrive at his genius conclusions!

    It’s also so weird that such an uproar would happen regarding lithium as a valid treatment!
    “Even the idea that something inanimate, a naturally occurring chemical that had been around since the beginnings of time, could shape a person’s mind and govern his behavior was repugnant and against the natural order of things to the traditionally thinking minds of some doctors.”

    That kind of thinking was just a continuation of “Man vs. Nature” and the Western dogmatic belief that nature has to be corralled and controlled and man is something separate from it while, of course, the opposite is true. If we’re all on earth and FROM the earth, how are we separate from it? Why WOULDN’T a naturally occurring substance spell relief for those with mental imbalances? Such damaging thinking–separating ourselves from nature–has led us exactly to where we are today and the trouble we’re all, hasn’t it?

    Lastly–Three Christs looks somewhat interesting. I’m thrilled that Mr. Dinklage has been cast in it. But seeing the trailer, it looks like they SO Hollywoodized it….it’ll be mediocre at best. The same way, when we finally saw Hidden Figures, we were underwhelmed by the corny, unbelievable scenes that tainted a potentially great story. Ah, well………

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another ultimate compliment to myself and this blog from you Stacey in the form of a well-considered, thoughtful response to what appears on these pages. If I ever have my doubts about whether anyone actually bothers to more than simply skim SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK’s fortnightly content, I know at least a couple of people do and you’re one of them Stacey. Thank you!

    Your take on the poor young chap in that video is very insightful. He looked and sounded both very autistic and effeminate (with maybe a few other conditions thrown in as well) and as you so rightly point out those things were not openly acknowledged or discussed back then.

    Your feeling about THREE CHRISTS and observation about HIDDEN FIGURES – spot on as well I reckon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, their loss, lol. But they might circle back later, of course.

    There’s a ridiculous scene in Hidden Figures where the black woman who’s working on a team for Kevin Costner isn’t allowed to use the “white” toilets in the building, so she has to run across campus every day and when Kevin finally calls her on it “Where do you GO for so long every day?” her frustration level breaks and she yells, in front of a room full of white men, that she has to go across campus twice a day at least to use the “colored” toilets–something that would NEVER happen (yelling about using the bathroom in a room full of men, AND at your boss) and also was factually untrue. The building where the real woman had actually worked during that time had long ago gotten rid of segregated signage and rules and whatnot.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: The Discovery of Lithium – Part 3 | Scenic Writer's Shack

  7. Pingback: The Discovery of Lithium – Part 4 | Scenic Writer's Shack

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