Doctor Donald Ross Gunn
No other staff member of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital appears to be as prolific as Dr. Donald Ross Gunn. He dedicated most of his professional life to one central goal—to invent a painless type of the electroshock treatment (EST) that involved no damage to the patient’s brain.
Born in Beaverton, Ontario, he graduated from the University of Toronto, where he earned a master’s degree in 1931. Upon the completion of graduate studies in psychiatry at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, he was assigned to work at the Ontario Hospital in New Toronto (the name of the asylum at that time) until 1939. During World War II, he was in charge of all air force radio communication facilities in Canada. He returned to New Toronto at the end of the war and spent the next fifteen years as a psychiatrist in charge of male patients until 1960. That same year, he was appointed as the director of medical research.
This seems the position that Gunn had always been aiming for. In the interview with The Advertiser, a local Etobicoke paper, he revealed that he had been researching the use of EST since 1945. The new post gave him everything that he wanted and required: time, medical equipment, drugs, and patients to experiment on. Even before Gunn’s appointment, the hospital was known for the advances made through the work conducted in the research department: “An active research hospital, it has the largest, best equipped, and most active research department in any mental hospital in the province,” the local paper boasted.
Gunn’s experimentations mainly involved a drug called succinylcholine, and he later became the first psychiatrist in North America to use it. He reasoned that if it was administrated prior to the treatment, the drug would be able to provide brief, but complete relaxation of the patient’s muscles. Electroshock produces a seizure so powerful that it causes tear muscles, broken teeth, and profound injuries to the spine and limbs. When the relaxant is administered, none of this occurs, although other side effects, such as severe headache and loss of memory, do still take place after the treatment. Nonetheless, Gunn’s experimentation proved itself to be, ultimately, successful–he eliminated all serious injuries associated with the electroshock, thus patients were no longer afraid of the severely damaging and unpleasant side effects. However, it not likely at the same time he managed to contain the damage being done to the brain of patient.
The local New Toronto press was first to announce its deep respect and admiration of Gunn’s progressive research. When the doctor opened a psychiatric care unit for children and adolescents during the fall of 1967 (he was also appointed as the superintendent of the hospital the same year), The Advertiser was happy to report the institution was supposedly “becoming a recognized leader in the field of physical treatment of the mentally ill.” In the same article, Gunn also proudly proclaimed that “Although we have a relatively small hospital, we have the third of fourth highest number of admissions and discharges per month of all the mental hospitals in Ontario.” He attributed it to both patient and staff ratio, which he claimed was largest in the province, and to “the best use of the advances of [psychiatric] treatment.” It also appears that the previous superintendent, Herbert Clayton Moorhouse, reduced the number of patients from 1,440 in 1959, to only 590 eight years later, through what the press branded as Moorhouse’s “skillful management.”
An unknown journalist who visited Lakeshore around 1963 and who eye witnessed the “progressive” and improved electroconvulsive treatment, wrote in his account that Gunn was “one of the country’s top research psychiatrists:” “One morning last week, I visited the hospital to observe, first hand, patients undergoing electroshock treatment. Prior to treatment, Dr. Gunn asked four patients if they objected to electroshock. All agree the treatment caused them little discomfort and they were in better spirit when it was completed. The method used at the New Toronto hospital to administer electroshock treatment causes the patient little discomfort and NO BRAIN DAMAGE WHATEVER [emphasis added]. Where once nearly 25 percent of all patients treated with electroshock suffered fractures caused by muscle contraction, new muscle relaxing drugs have reduced this figure to zero. The reason for high incidence of fracture during the pioneering days of electroshock, Dr. Gunn said, was the lack of a reliable muscle relaxant. Succinylcholine, the muscle relaxant used at the New Toronto hospital, is administrated intravenously, immediately prior to the shock itself, and relaxes the patient to the extent there is no muscle contraction whatever. Other than a slight twitching of the toes the patient is completely still.”
In most cases, the press aimed to present the hospital and Dr. Gunn as a progressive practitioner, and dedicated to the care of its patients. Yet, in November of 1971, Dr. Gunn rejected a document entitled “A Declaration of Human Rights for Mental Patients,” (drafted by the Church of Scientology), and presented by two of its representatives, Susan Morgan and Brian Levman, during the early November of 1971.
In his defense, Gunn explained that they were “absolute nonsense” and that some of them were already included in the hospital’s policy. Morgan and Levman visited the wards over a four-week period and reported that some of the patients confessed that they were forced to undergo unwanted treatments, such as electroshock. They explained that it was the main cause of Gunn’s rejection; he never openly denied the fact that the patients were indeed forced to undergo the treatment, he simply declared that his main objective was to “provide the best possible care and treatment for the patients” and a written consent must be obtained from the patient (or from their closest relative) before the electroshock is administrated.
Dr. Gunn also got briefly in trouble in September and October of 1971, when a non-profit organization called the Mothers for Real Mental Health, like the Scientologists, spoke out against the use of electroshock, lobotomy, and insulin shock treatment. For some time, they even gained support of Patrick Lawlor, MPP for Toronto-Lakeshore. He first stated that the Mothers were on “something quite true and valuable.” Lawlor believed that the psychiatric hospitals across the province were too overcrowded and there wasn’t enough staff. But after a visit to the hospital (he was invited by Dr. Gunn), Lawlor must have seen how wrong he was in the first place and in his letter to the editor of The Advertiser, he was happy to report that “Lakeshore was doing its level best with the facilities available and the universal shortage of psychiatric staff, and I continue to have the highest regards for Dr. Gunn and for his staff.” In addition, there was the hospital’s Volunteer Association that denied any cruel treatment being used at Lakeshore, stating that they would have been aware if it took place.
Moreover, it is important to note that during Gunn’s reign as the superintendent, Lakeshore became accredited and it was the only institution in Ontario that held the title, meaning that the conditions there were classified as reasonably good.
Dr. Gunn is remembered by his employees as a “very caring, devoted man to his patients,” and as a “great man to work for“ and that he “cared very much for the staff.” His office was located on the second floor of the Administration Building, overlooking the flower bed located in front of it.
The Archives for the History of Canadian Psychiatry and Mental Health Services contain some of Gunn’s original research papers, including “The Use of Drugs in Rehabilitation of Psychiatric Patients,” dated October 3, 1962, in which he reminds psychiatrists that “it is most important that physicians never lose sight of the fact that our drugs do not cure mental illness, they only treat symptoms” and that “they make it possible for a patient to live with his illness and carry on successfully in spite of it.”
Dr. Gunn finally retired in May, 1972. It is not known when he died, and he is resting at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
“Biography of Donald R. Gunn.” Etobicoke: Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital [handwritten in pencil, no date].
Gunn, Donald Ross. “The Use of Drugs in Rehabilitation of Psychiatric Patients.” October 3, 1962. Etobicoke: Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
Gunn, Donald Ross. “The Clinical Aspects of Succinylcholine.” Etobicoke: Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
Lawlor, Patrick. “Impressed.” Letter. The Advertiser October 7, 1971.
“Mothers Promised.” Lakeshore News September 15, 1971.
“New Supervisor Announces Psychiatric Care for Children at Lakeshore Hospital This Fall.” The Advertiser August 3, 1967: 1–2.
“Number One Gunn Retires.” The Advertiser May 4, 1972.
“Psychiatric Care for Children at Lakeshore Hospital This Fall.” The Advertiser August 3, 1967.
“Rights Bill Presented.” Etobicoke Guardian November 18, 1971.
“Suggestions Attacked.” The Advertiser September 16, 1971.
Tunney, Bob. “Re: LSPH Project Guestbook Entry.” E-mail to Agatha Barc. July 31, 2005.
All primary sources retrieved from the Archives for the History of Canadian Psychiatry and Mental Health Services, January 30 and April 21–22, 2005.