Timeline: The History of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and How We Treat it

Shell Shock
Nurses at the Sir William Hospital use experimental medical equipment on soldiers suffering from shell shock in 1917. Central Press/Getty Images

Throughout history, there has been no smooth arc from ignorance to enlightenment in understanding the interplay of mind and body at work in trauma—in the American Civil War, medics diagnosed traumatized men with an ailment they termed “soldier’s heart,” blaming their psychological collapse on cardiac problems. The American Psychiatric Association created the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis in 1980, which sparked a proliferation of research. Below, we've charted the history of trauma that leads to that point. For more on trauma and a new kind of therapy that offers hope to sufferers, read our latest cover story.

1887

At the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot paves the way for the modern concept of PTSD by showing that traumatic experiences can lead to ‘hysterical attacks’ in later life. In parallel, the psychologist Pierre Janet studies the nature of traumatic memory and dissociation.

Jean-Martin Charcot Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), French physician. Hulton Archive/Getty

1895

A woman who recovered from a trauma after the Austrian physician Josef Breuer asked her to recount her experience in great detail coins the term “talking cure.” The phrase is later popularized by Sigmund Freud, who also conducts pioneering work on trauma and dissociation.

Sigmund Freud Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. Photo by Hans Casparius/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1915

Charles S. Myers, a Cambridge psychologist seconded to the British Army on the Western Front, introduces the term “shell shock” into medical literature with an article in the Lancet.

Hurling Death Shock troops sitting in shell holes throw grenades during World War One in Eastern Europe, circa 1916. General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1915-1918

The First World War spurs the development of new therapies, from harsh “disciplinary” approaches to psychoanalysis. At Queens Square in London, Lewis Yealland famously treats “shell shocked” men suffering muteness or paralysis with electric shocks. At Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, by contrast, WiIlliam H.R. Rivers encourages officers, including the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, to share reflections on their experiences and dreams.

1942

Psychoanalysts Wilfred Bion and John Rickman pioneer group therapy among British psychiatric casualties at the Northfield Military Hospital near Birmingham.

trauma4 1980: A doctor talks to three male patients in Runwell Psychiatric Hospital. Evening Standard/Getty Images

1950s

The pharmacological revolution leads to the development of a new generation of psychiatric drugs.

trauma1 Bradley Hammond struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after his experiences in Iraq, where he was nearly killed several times and once was involved with the accidental shooting of an Iraqi family by U.S. troops. CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY IMAGES

1970s

A coalition of U.S. therapists working with Vietnam veterans, Holocaust survivors, and women subjected to domestic or sexual abuse draw attention to the potentially lifelong consequences of trauma.

Operation Prairie October 1966: Five team members of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, U.S. Army wade through a waist-deep stream, roofed over by dense jungle, about 400 meters south of the de-militarized zone in Vietnam. Lance Corporal Romine/Three Lions/Getty Images

1980

After extensive deliberations, the American Psychiatric Association creates a new diagnosis—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—by adding it to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).

trauma5 Army Spec. Chris Smith, a soldier from the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum. Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division are among those who've spent the most time in Iraq and Afghanistan, making its base at Fort Drum a "canary in a coal mine" for a looming crisis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Picture taken on April 16, 2008. Mark Dye/USA-Military/Reuters

1987

U.S. psychologist Francine Shapiro begins to develop Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

1990s

Developments in neuro-imaging suggest psychological trauma may cause physical changes in the brain.

trauma3 Changes in the brain areas that help us govern overwhelming emotions can significantly influence trauma. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

2014

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk publishes his book The Body Keeps The Score.