Very Early Writings

Plutarch on scrupulosity (1st century)

An early monk, John Climacus, on unwanted blasphemous thoughts (6th century)*

Early Firsthand Accounts

Margery Kempe and her sexual obsessive thoughts (1436)

Ignatius of Loyola describes his compulsive confessing (1500s)

John Bunyan and his blasphemous thought obsessions (1666)

Hannah Allen overcomes her obsessive thoughts (1683)*

Archibald Alexander quotes from a friend's letter (1844)*

An immigrant in New York City describes his compulsive "need-to-know" symptoms (1918)

A teenage girl's health and number obsessions (1929)

Early Writings by Clergy

Antoninus on the treatment of scrupulosity (1400s)

Francis de Sales on obsessive doubting and indecision (early 1600s)

Augustine Baker discusses obsessive thoughts and compulsive confessing of sins (1657)

Jeremy Taylor describes a compulsive symptom (1660)*

Alphonsus de Liguori on obedience as a cure for scruples (a term for Os and Cs) (1700s)

G.B. Scaramelli's advice on overcoming scruples (1754)

More of these...

Early Self-Help Literature

Richard Baxter's advice to sufferers (late 1600s)

John Moore's advice about obsessive thoughts (1692)

Writings of "Great Western Thinkers"

Shakespeare depicts Lady Macbeth's compulsive washing (c. 1605)

John Locke's essay on scrupulosity (1678)

Samuel Johnson, the English man of letters (1700s)

Soren Kierkegaard on obsessive "bad" thoughts (1848)*

Early Medical Accounts (17th and 18th Century)

Felix Platter on obsessive thoughts (1602)

Richard Napier describes a woman with a compulsive washing symptom (early 1600s)

John Woodward describes a woman with a harm obsession (1716)

Daniel Turner describes a man who irrationally feared he had syphilis (1724)*

Susannah Wesley objects to a scrupulosity sufferer being involuntarily committed (1746)

19th-Century Medical Writings

J.E.D. Esquirol's famous description of a woman's compulsive checking (1838)*

H. Le Grand du Saulle comments on washing compulsions, "responsibility" obsessions, etc. (1875)

William Hammond's account of an obsessive fear of contamination (1879)*

Ira Russell treats a patient's compulsive handwashing (1880)

Julius Donath describes a patient's obsessive fear that she might cheat on her husband (1895)

Henry Maudsley and his psychiatric textbook (1895)

Daniel Hack Tuke's paper on obsessions and compulsions (1894)*

Responses to Tuke's paper (1895)*

20th-Century Medical Writings (Before 1970)

Pierre Janet's massive book about obsessions and compulsions (1903)

M.J. Nolan treats an obsessional patient (1907)

Sigmund Freud's symbolic interpretation of a compulsive bedtime ritual (1917)*

Phyllis Greenacre contrasts Freud's and Janet's views of obsessional illness (1923)

George Goldman treats an obsessional patient using psychoanalysis (1938)

Selig Korson treats an obsessional patient using electroshock therapy (1949)

Aubrey Lewis on obsessional illness (1957)

Behaviorist Arnold Lazarus tries an "aversion therapy" for OCD (1965)*

20th-Century Advice from Clergy (Before 1970)

Patrick Gearon's book on scruples (a term for Os and Cs) (1921)*

Dermot Casey's book on scruples (1948)

V. M. O'Flaherty's four-step cure for scruples (1966)

Other Materials (Through the 1980s)

Howard Hughes's memos on how to open a can of food and so forth (mid-20th century)*

How the term "obsessive-compulsive disorder" was coined

The origin of behavior therapy for OCD

The development of new medications for treating OCD

How publicity surrounding Judith Rapoport's book led to a new animal model

An asterisk * marks
most interesting ones



  1. Adam, David, The Man Who Couldn't Stop Washing: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). The science journalist's book about OCD contains some footnoted historical discussion.

  2. Adams, Paul L., Obsessive Children: A Sociopsychiatric Study (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973). Adams, a psychiatry professor, included a detailed chronology of the history of OCD as an appendix to his book about OCD in children. Much of the 10-page chronology is devoted to the early 20th century.

  3. Alvarenga, P., et al., "Obsessive-compulsive disorder: a historical overview," in E. Storch et al., eds., Handbook of Child and Adolescent Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2007), 1-15. This book chapter about the history of OCD focuses partly on childhood OCD.

  4. Berrios, G.E., Our knowledge of anancasm (psychic compulsive states), History of Psychiatry, 2003, 14:113-128.

  5. Berrios, G.E., The History of Mental Symptoms (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996). Chapter 6 of this book is about obsessions and compulsions.

  6. Berrios, G.E. & Porter, R., eds., The History of Clinical Psychiatry (New York: New York University Press, 1995). Chapter 22, written by Berrios, is about OCD.

  7. Berrios, G.E., Obsessive-compulsive disorder: its conceptual history in France during the 19th century, Comprehensive Psychiatry, 1989, 30:283-295.

  8. Berrios, G.E., "Obsessional disorders during the nineteenth century: terminological and classificatory issues," in W.F. Bynum et al., eds., The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry (London: Tavistock Pubs., 1985), 167-87.

  9. Bourke, Joanna, Divine madness: the dilemma of religious scruples in twentieth-century America and Britain, Journal of Social History, 2009, 42:581-603. A history professor traces how scrupulosity went from being considered a religious issue to a medical problem.

  10. Bramwell, J. Milne, On imperative ideas, Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 1895, xviii: 331-351. In this 1895 article, the author surveys the history of ideas about obsessions and compulsions throughout the 19th century. The article is an excellent secondary source on the history of OCD.

  11. Cefalu, Paul, The doubting disease: religious scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder in historical context, Journal of Medical Humanities, 2010, 31:111-25. This paper by an English professor argues that obsessive religiosity must be understood in historical context.

  12. Collins, Eduardo F., "The Treatment of Scrupulosity in the Summa Moralis of St. Antoninus: A Historical-Theological Study" (dissertation, Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, Rome, 1961). This theology dissertation surveys early Catholic ideas about the causes and treatment of scrupulosity, focusing on the writings of Archbishop Antoninus (1389-1459) but also discussing many other early theological writings on the subject of scrupulosity. Collins read the sources in their original Latin.

  13. Dolnick, Edward, Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Chapters 15 and 16 critique the Freudian view of obsessional illness. The book quotes from many of Freud's writings on the subject.

  14. Hunter, Richard & Ida Macalpine, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, 1535-1860: A History Presented in Selected English Texts (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963). Look in the index under obsessional neurosis.

  15. Jakes, Ian, Theoretical Approaches to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996). This book discusses many 20th century theories of OCD, including those put forward by Pavlov, Reed, Pitman, Malan, Gray, Eyesenck, Rachman, Rapoport, Wise, Boyd, Lewis and others.

  16. May-Tolzmann, Ulrike, "Obsessional neurosis": a nosographic innovation by Freud, History of Psychiatry, 1998, ix:335-353. The article, originally written in German, discusses Freud and also has a good treatment of 19th century theories of OCD.

  17. McHenry, Lawrence C., Jr., Samuel Johnson's tics and gesticulations, Journal of the History of Medicine, April 1967, 22:152-168. This is one of several historical articles about Samuel Johnson's illness.

  18. Numbers, Ronald L. & Janet S. Numbers, Religious insanity: history of a diagnosis, Second Opinion, 1986, 3:56-77.

  19. Osborn, Ian, Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals: The Hidden Epidemic of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (New York: Dell Publishing, 1998). The popular self-help book contains an extensive discussion of the history of OCD. Chapter 11 is a historical perspective on OCD treatment.

  20. Osborn, Ian, Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? A Psychiatrist Explores the Role of Faith in Treatment (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2008). Includes detailed historical chapters about Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Therese of Lisieux and other religious figures and their struggles with obsessionality.

  21. Pitman, Roger K., "Historical considerations," in The Psychobiology of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, J. Zohar et al., eds. (New York: Springer Publ. Co., 1991), 1-12. Pitman discusses early psychobiological conceptions of obsessional illness, and also has a good discussion of Freud's and Janet's theories.

  22. Rachman, S.J., Psychological treatment of anxiety: the evolution of behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy, Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 2009, 5:97-119. Describes the origin of behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy for OCD and other disorders.

  23. Rachman, S.J. & R.J. Hodgson, Obsessions and Compulsions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980). Chapters 3 and 17 include a discussion of the history of OCD.

  24. Salzman, Leon & Frank H. Thaler, Obsessive-compulsive disorders: a review of the literature, Am. J. Psychiatry, March 1981, 138(3):286-296. This review of studies on OCD from 1953 to 1978 provides an overview of this key period in OCD research.

  25. Stein, D. J. & M.H. Stone, eds., Essential Papers on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (New York: New York University Press, 1997). The introductory chapter (pp. 19-29) traces the history of OCD.

  26. Steinberg, H., et al., Kraepelin's views on obsessive neurosis: a comparison with DSM-5 criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder, Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, 2017, 39:355-364. Discusses German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin's (1856-1926) ideas about OCD.

  27. Strayer, M., What was it like to suffer from obsessional disorder in the United States, 1840–1950? Journal of Medical Biography, 2018, 26:125-131.



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