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OCD in History: The News

I had this idea at one point to talk about people in history who had OCD, or how it was treated in history. There’s no purpose behind the idea, really. I’m just a history nerd, and one of my favorite history nerd activities is to learn about facts of daily life years ago so that I can be relieved I’m alive in 2016 and not 1916.

Anyway, occasionally I will hit the Google News Archives — now defunct, but still available — and search random terms. This was how I learned that there was a beard-growing contest in Sacramento in the 1930s, and a whole club that grew around it called the Whiskerinos. It was how I learned that Freddie Mercury loved cats just as much as I do.

So this morning, I searched for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Most of the hits are from the late 1990s and early 2000s or even later. Unfortunately, OCD is one of those illnesses everyone seems to have heard of, but that no one is really “aware” of in the sense that they know what it really is. That’s getting a lot better lately, but even some of the more recent articles, like this one from Oct. 2, 2000, portray OCD as mainly germaphobia.

This 1996 offering from Dr. Peter Gott’s column in the Fort Scott Tribune is actually more thorough than even many modern newspapers — though he does seem to give a worst case scenario.

And here’s an almost full-page health spread on OCD from the Jan. 13, 1998 Ocala Star-Banner, inspired by the release of the Jack Nicholson movie “As Good As It Gets.”

But some of the more interesting ones came when I searched “obsessions” and “compulsions” alone.

For example, the Milwaukee Journal published a story in 1915 — 1915! — about how you can cure obsessions by facing them. A deeper read showed that the good doctor who wrote it was speaking about both anxiety and social fads, but there are some early glimmerings of the early roots of exposure therapy in there, such as when he talks about a woman who worried she would die of heart problems for three years, until she finally gathered the courage to visit a doctor for gastric trouble.

(On the other hand, we’ve come a very long way since the rambling doctor’s blithe message in 1915, for which I am very glad! For some of us, “facing our obsessions frankly” is not enough, and other treatments and more understanding therapists make it much more effective.)

A 1928 Deseret News piece by eminent psychologist Louis E. Bisch about ignoring compulsions inspired by superstition is more measured, more sympathetic, and a lot easier to read.

It’s interesting to see that as early as the 1920s, doctors and psychiatrists were recognizing that facing phobias and fears was effective as a treatment! It’s also interesting to see how much more in-depth and comprehensive more recent articles about OCD have been, and how many more articles were out there in the past three decades.

A lot of times, when I search for a topic, I get a lot of hits from the early 1900s, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. I found almost nothing before the 1990s. The good news is, this means that awareness of OCD — both that it exists, and what it is — has been on the steady rise.

That’s great news for those of us who struggled for years with our fears and obsessions and compulsions before finding out what they were. If means that fewer people will have to go through what we did. If they see news stories and recognize themselves, maybe they can get help quicker.

Photo by Neil T

OCD in History: The News

Kyla Cathey

Kyla Cathey is a freelance writer from Galt, California who has been overcoming OCD for the past year, after struggling with it for much of her life.

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APA Reference
Cathey, K. (2016). OCD in History: The News. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 7 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Apr 2016
Published on All rights reserved.