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Joseph Wortis

Joseph Wortis was born, in 1906 in Brooklyn, New York, in the United States, and graduated in medicine, in 1932, at the University of Vienna, in Austria. He was trained in psychiatry at the Bellevue Hospital, in New York, spending 1934-1935, as a Havellock Ellis Fellow in Vienna. It was during this year that he met Manfred Sackel and became familiar with his insulin coma therapy of schizophrenia (Shorter 2011). ´

After returning to the United States in the mid-1930s and translating Sakel’s monograph on insulin coma therapy, Karl Bowman set up an insulin ward for Wortis at Bellevue Hospital. In 1937, with the publication of their experiences on that ward in the American Psychiatric Association Journal, insulin coma therapy was launched in the USA (Wortis and Bowman 1937).  In the same year, Wortis was part of Harold Himwich’s team that was first to study and report on “brain metabolism during hypoglycemic treatment of schizophrenia” (Himwich, Bowman, Wortis and Fazekas 1937). In the five years that followed, he remained involved in studying “biochemical changes occurring in the cerebral blood” (Himwich, Bowman, Wortis and Fazekas 1939) and exploring the availability of substances, such as lactic acid and sodium pyruvate for brain metabolism during insulin coma treatment (Wortis and Goldfarb 1940). He also developed a simple method for prolonging coma (Wortis and Korr 1942).

In 1935, soon after his return from Europe, Wortis was invited by Clarence Farrar, at the time editor of the American Psychiatric Association Journal, to write a review article on insulin coma therapy in the Annual Reviews of Progress of the journal. Instead, Wortis wrote an “Annual Review of Progress in Physiological Treatments”  which became a regular feature in the journal for about 20 years, from about 1935 to 1955 (Wortis 2011). It was in his annual review that the first reference to chlorpromazine in the English language appeared (Wortis 1954).

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Wortis explored the effect of chlorpromazine on brain metabolism using minced rat brains with the employment of a Warburg respirometer.  He observed that chlorpromazine had a biphasic effect on brain respiration, in the first phase, lasting about 16 hours, inhibiting, and in the second, lasting for about four days, enhancing it. He also noted that chlorpromazine depressed brain metabolism in the lower and enhanced it in the higher cortical structures (Wortis and Jackim 1962).

In June 1973, Wortis became the founding editor of Biological Psychiatry, the journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry. He continued in this position until 1992.

Joseph Wortis died, in 1995, at age 88 (Gelder 1995).



Gelder LV. Dr. Joseph Wortis, an Editor and Psychiatrist, 88, Dies. The New York Times, February 28th, 1995.

Himwich HE, Bowman KM, Wortis J, Fazekas JF. Brain metabolism during the hypoglycemic treatment of schizophrenia. Science, 1937; 86: 271-2.

Shorter E. Introduction and dramatis personae. In:  Ban TA, editor, An Oral History of Neuropsychopharmacolgy. Volume 1 (Starting Up, editor: Edward Shorter). Brentwood: American College of Neuropsychopharmacology; 2011, pp. XLVI – LXV.

Wortis J. Review of psychiatric progress, 1953, physiological treatment. American Journal of Psychiatry 1954; 110: 507-10.

Wortis J, interviewed by Leo E. Hollister. In: Ban TA, editor. An Oral History of Neuropsychopharmacolgy. Voume 1 (Starting Up, editor: Edwerd Shorter). Brentwood: American College of Neuropsychopharmacology; 2011, pp. 311-26.  

Wortis J, Bowman KM. Further experience at Bellevue Hospital with hypolycemic insulin teatment of schizoprenia. Am J Psychiatry 1937; 94: 135 – 8.

Wortis J, Goldfarb W. A method of studying the availability of various substrates for human brain metabolism during therapeutic insulin shock. Science, 1940; 91: 270 - 1.

Wortis J, Jackim E. Effects of chlorpromazine on brain tissue respiration. Am J Psychiatry, 1962; 119: 363-6.

Wortis J, Korr IM. A simple method for prolonging therapeutic insulin coma. Proceeings of theSociety of Experimental Biology 1942; 49: 128-30.

André B. Veras
July 3, 2014