Celebrating 75 Years of Lithium

May 6, 2024

Written by Joao L. de Quevedo, MD, PhD

Discovered by Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson in 1817, lithium’s potential truly began to unfold on May 5th, 1949. On this day, Stanley G. Thompson and Glenn T. Seaborg isolated lithium-6, a stable isotope of the element, through the bombardment of lithium-7 with deuterons in a cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley. This breakthrough opened doors to myriad applications that continue to impact our lives today.

The story of lithium’s therapeutic potential began in the 1940s when Australian psychiatrist John Cade made a groundbreaking observation while experimenting with lithium salts as a treatment for mania. Through a series of experiments, Cade demonstrated the mood-stabilizing effects of lithium carbonate, laying the groundwork for its eventual adoption as a cornerstone medication in the management of bipolar disorder.

In the 1950s, amidst a backdrop of limited treatment options and widespread stigma surrounding mental illness, Mogens Schou embarked on a journey that would redefine the trajectory of psychiatry. Building upon John Cade’s seminal findings on lithium’s mood-stabilizing effects, Schou conducted a series of landmark studies that not only validated lithium’s efficacy but also pioneered the concept of evidence-based psychopharmacology.

Through meticulous clinical trials and rigorous research, Schou demonstrated lithium’s unparalleled ability to prevent manic and depressive episodes, offering patients a ray of hope amid despair. His seminal work laid the foundation for modern psychopharmacology, ushering in a new era of precision medicine and personalized treatment approaches for bipolar disorder and other mood disorders.

Beyond his contributions to clinical practice, Schou’s legacy is a beacon of scientific integrity and humanistic care. His unwavering commitment to rigorous methodology and compassionate patient care inspires generations of researchers and clinicians, reminding us of the profound impact that dedication and empathy can have on the lives of those affected by mental illness.

As we reflect on the 75th anniversary of lithium’s discovery, let us celebrate the scientific achievements that have transformed the field of psychiatry and recognize the individuals whose tireless efforts have paved the way for progress. Mogens Schou’s indelible imprint on the history of mental health treatment is a testament to the power of curiosity, compassion, and collaboration in advancing human well-being.

In honoring Schou’s legacy, let us recommit ourselves to pursuing knowledge, empathy, and innovation in mental health care. As we look towards the future, may we draw inspiration from his example as we strive to build a world where everyone has access to compassionate and effective treatment, free from the shackles of stigma and discrimination.

On this momentous occasion, let us celebrate the discovery of lithium and the enduring spirit of discovery and compassion that continues to illuminate the path toward healing and hope.


New Advances in the Pharmacology and Toxicology of Lithium: A Neurobiologically Oriented Overview.

Bortolozzi A, Fico G, Berk M, Solmi M, Fornaro M, Quevedo J, Zarate CA Jr, Kessing LV, Vieta E, Carvalho AF.

Pharmacol Rev. 2024 May 2;76(3):323-357. doi: 10.1124/pharmrev.120.000007.

PMID: 38697859 Review.