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The DNA double helix, penicillin, the X-ray, insulin—these are routinely cited as some of the most important medical discoveries of the twentieth century. And yet, the 1949 discovery of lithium as a cure for bipolar disorder is perhaps one of the most important—yet largely unsung—breakthroughs of the modern era. In Lithium, Walter Brown, a practicing psychiatrist and profe The DNA double helix, penicillin, the X-ray, insulin—these are routinely cited as some of the most important medical discoveries of the twentieth century. And yet, the 1949 discovery of lithium as a cure for bipolar disorder is perhaps one of the most important—yet largely unsung—breakthroughs of the modern era. In Lithium, Walter Brown, a practicing psychiatrist and professor at Brown, reveals two unlikely success stories: that of John Cade, the physician whose discovery would come to save an untold number of lives and launch a pharmacological revolution, and that of a miraculous metal rescued from decades of stigmatization. From insulin comas and lobotomy to incarceration to exile, Brown chronicles the troubling history of the diagnosis and (often ineffective) treatment of bipolar disorder through the centuries, before the publication of a groundbreaking research paper in 1949. Cade’s “Lithium Salts in the Treatment of Psychotic Excitement” described, for the first time, lithium’s astonishing efficacy at both treating and preventing the recurrence of manic-depressive episodes, and would eventually transform the lives of patients, pharmaceutical researchers, and practicing physicians worldwide. And yet, as Brown shows, it would be decades before lithium would overcome widespread stigmatization as a dangerous substance, and the resistance from the pharmaceutical industry, which had little incentive to promote a naturally occurring drug that could not be patented. With a vivid portrait of the story’s unlikely hero, John Cade, Brown also describes a devoted naturalist who, unlike many modern medical researchers, did not benefit from prestigious research training or big funding sources (Cade’s “laboratory” was the unused pantry of an isolated mental hospital). As Brown shows, however, these humble conditions were the secret to his historic success: Cade was free to follow his own restless curiosity, rather than answer to an external funding source. As Lithium makes tragically clear, medical research—at least in America—has transformed in such a way that serendipitous discoveries like Cade’s are unlikely to occur ever again. Recently described by the New York Times as the “Cinderella” of psychiatric drugs, lithium has saved countless of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs. In this revelatory biography of a drug and the man who fought for its discovery, Brown crafts a captivating picture of modern medical history—revealing just how close we came to passing over this extraordinary cure.


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The DNA double helix, penicillin, the X-ray, insulin—these are routinely cited as some of the most important medical discoveries of the twentieth century. And yet, the 1949 discovery of lithium as a cure for bipolar disorder is perhaps one of the most important—yet largely unsung—breakthroughs of the modern era. In Lithium, Walter Brown, a practicing psychiatrist and profe The DNA double helix, penicillin, the X-ray, insulin—these are routinely cited as some of the most important medical discoveries of the twentieth century. And yet, the 1949 discovery of lithium as a cure for bipolar disorder is perhaps one of the most important—yet largely unsung—breakthroughs of the modern era. In Lithium, Walter Brown, a practicing psychiatrist and professor at Brown, reveals two unlikely success stories: that of John Cade, the physician whose discovery would come to save an untold number of lives and launch a pharmacological revolution, and that of a miraculous metal rescued from decades of stigmatization. From insulin comas and lobotomy to incarceration to exile, Brown chronicles the troubling history of the diagnosis and (often ineffective) treatment of bipolar disorder through the centuries, before the publication of a groundbreaking research paper in 1949. Cade’s “Lithium Salts in the Treatment of Psychotic Excitement” described, for the first time, lithium’s astonishing efficacy at both treating and preventing the recurrence of manic-depressive episodes, and would eventually transform the lives of patients, pharmaceutical researchers, and practicing physicians worldwide. And yet, as Brown shows, it would be decades before lithium would overcome widespread stigmatization as a dangerous substance, and the resistance from the pharmaceutical industry, which had little incentive to promote a naturally occurring drug that could not be patented. With a vivid portrait of the story’s unlikely hero, John Cade, Brown also describes a devoted naturalist who, unlike many modern medical researchers, did not benefit from prestigious research training or big funding sources (Cade’s “laboratory” was the unused pantry of an isolated mental hospital). As Brown shows, however, these humble conditions were the secret to his historic success: Cade was free to follow his own restless curiosity, rather than answer to an external funding source. As Lithium makes tragically clear, medical research—at least in America—has transformed in such a way that serendipitous discoveries like Cade’s are unlikely to occur ever again. Recently described by the New York Times as the “Cinderella” of psychiatric drugs, lithium has saved countless of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs. In this revelatory biography of a drug and the man who fought for its discovery, Brown crafts a captivating picture of modern medical history—revealing just how close we came to passing over this extraordinary cure.

30 review for Lithium: A Doctor, a Drug, and a Breakthrough

  1. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    Nature's mixed review: https://www.nature.com/articles/d4158... Excerpt: "The drug that set off the ‘psychopharmacological revolution’ of the 1950s, with antipsychotics and antidepressants arriving in its wake, is in many ways a stunning success. Yet it was developed in a ramshackle pantry, and the bottled urine samples were stored in [John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist] family refrigerator. Moreover, in retrospect, the discovery of lithium seems in part related to an erroneous interpretation o Nature's mixed review: https://www.nature.com/articles/d4158... Excerpt: "The drug that set off the ‘psychopharmacological revolution’ of the 1950s, with antipsychotics and antidepressants arriving in its wake, is in many ways a stunning success. Yet it was developed in a ramshackle pantry, and the bottled urine samples were stored in [John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist] family refrigerator. Moreover, in retrospect, the discovery of lithium seems in part related to an erroneous interpretation on Cade’s part. The ‘tranquillized’ guinea pigs were probably showing the first symptoms of lithium poisoning: lethargy is still a warning sign of an overdose. And the step from guinea pigs to humans was a “conceptual leap”, as Brown kindly puts it — hardly a deduction from sound theory. It is unlikely that a modern researcher would get permission for experiments such as Cade’s." So, probably not for me. But an interesting bit of history, ingenuity and creative improvisation.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Karen MacLaurin

    Excellent review of the history of lithium use in the treatment of manic depression and the contribution of John Cade and other psychiatrists who refined his research. A must read for anyone suffering from manic depression or who knows anyone taking lithium for this reason. My grandmother was part of an experimental group in Sudbury, Ontario in the mid to late 1960s who benefitted from lithium and the regular blood tests to check on levels in her system. She was elderly by the time she was introd Excellent review of the history of lithium use in the treatment of manic depression and the contribution of John Cade and other psychiatrists who refined his research. A must read for anyone suffering from manic depression or who knows anyone taking lithium for this reason. My grandmother was part of an experimental group in Sudbury, Ontario in the mid to late 1960s who benefitted from lithium and the regular blood tests to check on levels in her system. She was elderly by the time she was introduced to the drug. She had previously been given shock treatments in Montreal in the 1950's which left her "addled" as she said. To the end she did not truly understand her condition. However, lithium made her life and all of our lives more manageable. I highly recommend this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    ** I received an advanced reading copy from a Goodreads giveaway An overall excellent book. Very detailed and truly gives us the big picture about the significance of lithium. The story of John Cade is an interesting one, he was truly a good man in more ways than one. From a POW to the first advocate for lithium, John Cade has transformed the lives of those around him no matter what the circumstance. My only gripe for the book is that it could be about 20-40 pages shorter as many information is r ** I received an advanced reading copy from a Goodreads giveaway An overall excellent book. Very detailed and truly gives us the big picture about the significance of lithium. The story of John Cade is an interesting one, he was truly a good man in more ways than one. From a POW to the first advocate for lithium, John Cade has transformed the lives of those around him no matter what the circumstance. My only gripe for the book is that it could be about 20-40 pages shorter as many information is repeated and at points it was way too repetitive.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

    A very thorough look at lithium research and the psychiatric community's changing views on lithium over the decades. The first half of the book is quite gripping, describing a history of mania and bipolar disorder treatment, a succinct biography of John Cade, and the biochemistry of lithium in the human body. The second half of the book became rather repetitive, describing in detail multiple research endeavors by multiple doctors from 1950-1980, all coming to roughly similar conclusions. Yet thi A very thorough look at lithium research and the psychiatric community's changing views on lithium over the decades. The first half of the book is quite gripping, describing a history of mania and bipolar disorder treatment, a succinct biography of John Cade, and the biochemistry of lithium in the human body. The second half of the book became rather repetitive, describing in detail multiple research endeavors by multiple doctors from 1950-1980, all coming to roughly similar conclusions. Yet this book still gives a solid perspective of the journey that psychiatric drugs like lithium must go through, and anyone working in the mental health field, or even interested in mental health, will find this inside scoop of psychiatric medicine research intriguing.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Aubrie

    Repetitive in many places, but I learned some things. I think that this book could have gone even further into the history and symptoms of mania itself. Overall I think that there still isn't enough info about Lithium - we still don't know how it helps those with bipolar disorders - and perhaps this book was written too soon because of that. But it was an easy read anyway. Repetitive in many places, but I learned some things. I think that this book could have gone even further into the history and symptoms of mania itself. Overall I think that there still isn't enough info about Lithium - we still don't know how it helps those with bipolar disorders - and perhaps this book was written too soon because of that. But it was an easy read anyway.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Khan Ashraf Alif

    Nicely done 👍

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

    One of the most mysterious drugs of all is lithium, a ridiculously simple, geologically abundant monoatomic ion that is the gold standard for bipolar depression treatment. Walter Brown's book tells the fascinating story of how Australian doctor John Cade discovered it. One of the most mysterious drugs of all is lithium, a ridiculously simple, geologically abundant monoatomic ion that is the gold standard for bipolar depression treatment. Walter Brown's book tells the fascinating story of how Australian doctor John Cade discovered it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Meagan Hansen

    Goodreads first read win in exchange for an honest review. I found this very informative. I think anyone who knows someone with mental health issues, or anyone who has it themselves should read this. I learned about a meditation I myself have taken.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!!!!!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Piotr Krawczyk

    Książka ta to chyba pierwsza na świecie i tak szeroko promowana (amazon) "biografia" litu - jednego z leków charakterystycznych wyłącznie dla psychiatrii, a którego wprowadzenie zdecydowanie zmieniło leczenie zaburzeń nastroju. Jest to przede wszystkim opowieść o naukowcach, którzy od 1948 roku lit badali i mieli odwagę wdrażać go do leczenie u swoich pacjentów. Znajdziemy tu także nieco anegdot sprzed "ery litu", czyli z okresu XIX i początku XX wieku, ale dominującą część stanowi dość skrupula Książka ta to chyba pierwsza na świecie i tak szeroko promowana (amazon) "biografia" litu - jednego z leków charakterystycznych wyłącznie dla psychiatrii, a którego wprowadzenie zdecydowanie zmieniło leczenie zaburzeń nastroju. Jest to przede wszystkim opowieść o naukowcach, którzy od 1948 roku lit badali i mieli odwagę wdrażać go do leczenie u swoich pacjentów. Znajdziemy tu także nieco anegdot sprzed "ery litu", czyli z okresu XIX i początku XX wieku, ale dominującą część stanowi dość skrupulatny opis badań prowadzonych przez Johna Cade'a i Mogens'a Schou oraz innych psychiatrów z połowy XX wieku, dzięki którym dziś lit jest używany w medycynie. Jest to żywa opowieść, którą czyta się szybko i przyjemnie, ale, co zrozumiałe, nie jest to opowieść dla każdego - medyczne zastosowanie węglanu litu brzmi bardziej jak temat doktoratu, niż ciekawej książki. Wszystkim, którzy interesują się historią medycyny, a szczególnie psychiatrii i farmakologii bardzo polecam.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Constance

    Excellent information if one is interested in medication, mental health, and research which I am. It took me a month to to finish this book because I was looking up words, highlighting, and re reading parts that made an impact. Mental health is not to me taken lightly. It is debilitating, it devastates families, and the one suffering from any form of mental illness is overwhelmed. Until you get the right combination of drugs, your life seems hopeless. We as a nation need to put mental health in t Excellent information if one is interested in medication, mental health, and research which I am. It took me a month to to finish this book because I was looking up words, highlighting, and re reading parts that made an impact. Mental health is not to me taken lightly. It is debilitating, it devastates families, and the one suffering from any form of mental illness is overwhelmed. Until you get the right combination of drugs, your life seems hopeless. We as a nation need to put mental health in the forefront. We cannot afford to sweep it out the door. Be compassionate if you know someone who struggles on a daily basis to feel "normal"

  12. 5 out of 5

    Erica

    This was a difficult book to finish, however I felt the need to finish it after the first two chapter, hoping that it would get better. As others have mentioned in their reviews, there is a lot of repeated information. This could have almost been a short story, rather than a book. There was little information given about the actual drug, as there is still a lot of unknowns. There were also a lot of tangents in the story, that made the book feel like it was going on forever.

  13. 5 out of 5

    S

    Well researched but somehow both repetitive (wait, didn’t I read this already?) and filled with extraneous information (what’s this got to do with lithium/Cade?) I can see author’s passion for and knowledge of the topic but he fails to pull you in to the excitement. Despite being less than 200 pages, a bit of a drag to read. Probably could’ve been half the length and still have all the necessarily information.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tim Askin

    Feels often more like historiography and the editing is poor. Paragraphs repeat and punctuation is annoying.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robert Fawcett

    Lithium: A Doctor, A Drug, and a Breakthrough by Walter A. Brown, M.D. is an excellent read. It is highly informative, while keeping the reader’s interest by weaving fascinating personal stories, e.g., of John Cade M.D. the Australian psychiatrist who discovered lithium’s antimanic effect while laboring in a closet-sized lab and storing urine samples in the family refrigerator. Discovering and documenting lithium’s remarkable effect in 1949 Cade literally launched the modern era of psychopharma Lithium: A Doctor, A Drug, and a Breakthrough by Walter A. Brown, M.D. is an excellent read. It is highly informative, while keeping the reader’s interest by weaving fascinating personal stories, e.g., of John Cade M.D. the Australian psychiatrist who discovered lithium’s antimanic effect while laboring in a closet-sized lab and storing urine samples in the family refrigerator. Discovering and documenting lithium’s remarkable effect in 1949 Cade literally launched the modern era of psychopharmacology, in which drugs can target specific emotional symptoms and disorders. But, alas, lithium faced opposition in much of Europe, especially the UK, and in the United States. Brown details the struggles of Dr. Mogens Schou in Denmark to get lithium accepted as the remarkable mood stabilizer it is, despite facing prejudice in the States from the era when lithium’s use as a salt substitute led to its being banned, even from many of the soft drinks and household products it had found its way into. Brown peppers the book with so many intriguing details (lithium was one of the original 7 ingredients in 7-UP!) which adds to the fun of reading it. As the author of Calming the Bipolar Storm, currently in publication with Rowman & Littlefield, I found Lithium a rich source of history of both bipolar disorder and lithium. An excellent book for anyone interested in bipolar disorder, from patients to clinicians. Robert G. Fawcett, M.D.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Bekah

    A fascinating look at the history of lithium as a medical treatment for bipolar (previously known as manic-depressive illness). The book offers a short history on manic-depression along with the terrible "treatments" that were imposed on patients. We are then taken on the path of lithium's multiple starts as a medicine and the controversy of general public use, before finally gaining the attention of the wider psychiatric world. Despite not being patent-able and therefore of little interest to t A fascinating look at the history of lithium as a medical treatment for bipolar (previously known as manic-depressive illness). The book offers a short history on manic-depression along with the terrible "treatments" that were imposed on patients. We are then taken on the path of lithium's multiple starts as a medicine and the controversy of general public use, before finally gaining the attention of the wider psychiatric world. Despite not being patent-able and therefore of little interest to the pharmaceutical industry, to this day lithium is the best option for most bipolar people because it can reduce and *prevent* episodes. Lithium is even being looked at for its ability to reduce suicide. While there is a bit of repetition throughout the book, I encourage anyone interested in the topic or curious about the history of lithium or bipolar to give this lay-person-friendly book a read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Beth Ann Ditkoff

    This book was a well-written and organized account of the history of the discovery of lithium. An obscure Australian psychiatrist, John Cade, performed the first experiments, documenting that this drug had efficacy in the treatment of patients suffering from bipolar illness (previously called manic-depressive illness). Although the book had some interesting tidbits about the history of this element--it was once use as a salt substitute for people on low sodium restricted diets until it was disco This book was a well-written and organized account of the history of the discovery of lithium. An obscure Australian psychiatrist, John Cade, performed the first experiments, documenting that this drug had efficacy in the treatment of patients suffering from bipolar illness (previously called manic-depressive illness). Although the book had some interesting tidbits about the history of this element--it was once use as a salt substitute for people on low sodium restricted diets until it was discovered that the lithium was reaching toxic doses causing disability and death--the majority of this book goes in chronologic order to discuss additional scientists' contributions to elucidating the safety profile of lithium. I thought that there wasn't enough interesting material to make a full-length book, and some of the text was repetitive. I think this information would have been better suited to a lengthy magazine article. However, I found the book to be informative and educational.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kristina

    Interesting book about the history of lithium and its use for bipolar disorder. Working the mental health field, I’ve observed the positive effects this drug has had on people. I knew that it wasn’t prescribed as much as it probably should, considering its high success rate. A lot is related to the lack of money making associated with it (its an element, unlike these pharma-produces drugs so money incentive for companies). Also talks about the scientists involved with the discovery and the long Interesting book about the history of lithium and its use for bipolar disorder. Working the mental health field, I’ve observed the positive effects this drug has had on people. I knew that it wasn’t prescribed as much as it probably should, considering its high success rate. A lot is related to the lack of money making associated with it (its an element, unlike these pharma-produces drugs so money incentive for companies). Also talks about the scientists involved with the discovery and the long time it took for lithium to catch on.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mrs. Palmer

    This could have been so much more interesting, but it was just...not engaging. It was super repetitive too and the way it was written was confusing. It kept jumping back and forth in time and it really didn't seem to get at anything deeper than continuing to repeat the results of various studies and then going into depth on mostly irrelevant or uninteresting facts about the people who did the studies. Disappointing. This could have been so much more interesting, but it was just...not engaging. It was super repetitive too and the way it was written was confusing. It kept jumping back and forth in time and it really didn't seem to get at anything deeper than continuing to repeat the results of various studies and then going into depth on mostly irrelevant or uninteresting facts about the people who did the studies. Disappointing.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nina

    I like reading about science history, including medical science and about the history of mental illness, so this was right up my alley. I appreciated that it was a fairly quick read with an attempt to be objective about research feuds. I felt sad for some guinea pigs, but overall this was pretty interesting.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    A well researched book about the re discovery of Lithium used to treat manic-depressive conditions. This book gives credit to the scientists who have made this possible and is very well written with charm and some funny commentary on the scandals. One thing is that the author repeats himself in subsequent chapters to help the reader not get bogged down by the information in the previous chapter. It’s a stylistic approach and it’s up to the reader if this frustrates you or not. However, this book A well researched book about the re discovery of Lithium used to treat manic-depressive conditions. This book gives credit to the scientists who have made this possible and is very well written with charm and some funny commentary on the scandals. One thing is that the author repeats himself in subsequent chapters to help the reader not get bogged down by the information in the previous chapter. It’s a stylistic approach and it’s up to the reader if this frustrates you or not. However, this book is written in lamens and can be read by anyone!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Anthony

    A look at the 1949 discovery of lithium as a cure for bipolar disorder by John Cade, an obscure psychiatrist from Australia, working in isolation with little equipment and no research funds discovers the most important treatment discoveries in all of medicine.

  23. 5 out of 5

    John Anderson

    Not a bad read but a little dry. There were some interesting facts about lithium that I will take with me but there was a lot of material that was repeated over and over r/t lithium such as the dangers of lithium and the lack of pharmaceutical support d/t lack of commercial appeal, ie $$$$.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    Interesting history of an interesting drug that seems to be very successful for the treatment of mania. Its use is limited because it is not a big Pharma promoted drug but is a natural ingredient and thus less expensive????

  25. 5 out of 5

    Luis Brudna

    O livro é focado na figura de 'John Frederick Joseph Cade' - que pode ser considerado o pai do uso de compostos de lítio em tratamentos psiquiátricos. O foco do livro é na psiquiatria/farmacologia, e não é um livro sobre as propriedades químicas do elemento lítio. O livro é focado na figura de 'John Frederick Joseph Cade' - que pode ser considerado o pai do uso de compostos de lítio em tratamentos psiquiátricos. O foco do livro é na psiquiatria/farmacologia, e não é um livro sobre as propriedades químicas do elemento lítio.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Pulignani

    Good information.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andres

    Very informative, but keeps jumping around. Would have wished he kept the whole book chronological.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    An interesting and heart-warming story about how Lithium’s medical use in mood disorders was discovered and about its role in helping so many bi-polar and manic depressive patients.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Grace

    4 ⭐️ an informative and interesting overview on the history of lithium, how it came to be used in medicine, the creators behind it and theories behind why it’s so effective when treating manic-depressive disorders. Can be repetitive at times but well worth the read!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joanne Manaster

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