Dianetics and Scientology in “Astounding Science Fiction” (Part Three) The Big Reveal

ASF may 1950For dianetics ASF headlineScientology-watchers (and Scientologists) the iconic issue of  the pulp magazine “Astounding Science Fiction” was released in  May 1950.

It contained a long article that gave the first full account of L Ron Hubbard’s new ‘science of the mind’, aka ‘Dianetics’.

In previous months John W Campbell, the editor of “Astounding”, had deployed every resource in a campaign to build up interest in this article. Campbell believed that the creation of Dianetics was  at least worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Dianetics was presented as:

  • A revolutionary new science which would not only replace psychiatry, but also cure many physical illnesses
  • Easy to apply by the layman – all that a reasonably intelligent person needed was a copy of Hubbard’s book (published simultaneously) and a cooperative partner
  • Always 100% effective

These were extraordinary claims which would soon come into question. At this time, however, Hubbard was at the height of his influence over Campbell, who was a ‘true believer’. The publicity that Campbell provided in “Astounding”would enable Hubbard to abandon the world of pulp science fiction and move on to a new career as a modern guru.

After the break, I will examine Campbell’s Editorial in this issue, Dr Joseph Winter’s introduction to Hubbard’s article, and the other references to Dianetics in the issue.

Hubbard’s article will feature in the next part of this series

May 1950

Download Issue as .pdf

ASF may 1950DianeticsBefore we open the magazine, we should remember that Campbell had introduced Hubbard to a number of individuals whom he thought could help with the promotion of Dianetics.

These people helped to plan the promotion of Dianetics and, for a time, formed an ‘inner circle’. They included Art Ceppos (a publisher of academic books) and Doctor Joseph Winter (a real MD).

Ceppos owned Hermitage House (an imprint known for respectable medical textbooks) and published Hubbard’s book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health – A Handbook of Dianetic Therapy” at the same time as the “Astounding” article. ”

Doctor J A Winters MD provided a forward to the book (which was featured on the cover) and an introduction to the article. Winters wrote occasional medical articles for “Astounding”  (e.g. “Endocrinology is Tough” which appeared in the October 1948 issue of “Astounding”(pg 114). It should be noted that Winters was a general practitioner, with no special expertise in psychiatry.

Between them Ceppos and Winter lent a great deal of initial credibility to Hubbard’s ideas, and offset his complete lack of medical (or any other) qualifications.

John W Campbell’s Editorial Introducing L Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics

may 50 editorial 1of2

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may 50 editorial 2of2

Or download the entire issue from the link at the top of the page 


The first reference to Dianetics in the May 1950 issue of “Astounding” is in John W Campbell’s regular editorial on page 4.

In this piece, Campbell gives the impression of a man who ‘wants to believe’  – but is still not quite convinced.

In the first paragraph of his editorial  he admits that Hubbard’s long article:

[…] describes a technique of mental therapy of such power that it will, I know, seem fantastic

Campbell puts his faith in the opinion of Doctor Joseph Winter (who wrote an introduction to Hubbard’s article) stating that:

He [Winter] has studied the techniques in detail, and learned the techniques himself. Dr Winter can speak as a medical  expert; I can only say that my investigations have led me to the conviction that the phenomenon I have observed definitely merit publication of this material for wider analysis and testing.

Campbell emphasises that he waited for the appearance of “Dianetics” in book form before publishing Hubbard’s article so that the hypothesis could be fairly tested:

There is one, and only one scientific argument with, for or against, any scientific theory; experimental evidence. I am most anxious to publish articles confirming or disproving Hubbard’s material […] The only scientific method of examination is to have many scattered workers repeat Hubbard’s experiments using precisely the methods Hubbard specifies, and record results.

I cannot help but feel some sympathy towards Campbell. Although he had been carried away by his enthusiasm (and probably by Hubbard’s persuasive presentation) he still wanted objective supporting evidence. It must have been disappointing when Dianetics ultimately failed to fulfil his hopes. At this point:

The fact that the inner circle all became disillusioned did not slow down the Dianetics bandwagon. Hubbard republished “Dianetics” himself, and Winter’s book had little impact on the popular interest in ‘Dianetic Therapy’.

Later, two rigorous scientific examinations of Dianetics both falsified the basic foundations of Hubbard’s hypothesis:

  1. Dianetic Therapy: An Experimental Evaluation” (1953) a PhD thesis
  2. An Experimental Investigation of Hubbard’s Engram Hypothesis (Dianetics)“(1959) published in the Psychological Newsletter

Campbell had his wish. Dianetics was subjected to rigorous, objective examination. He was likely disappointed that, despite this, it went on from strength to strength.

Dr Winter’s Introduction

The article begins on page 43 with an introduction by Doctor Joseph Winter. Right away, Winters informs us that the editor (i.e. Campbell) wanted an introduction by an MD to ” […] make certain that you readers would not confuse Dianetics with thiotimoline or with any other bit of scientific spoofing.

asimov thiotimolineThis is a reference to a spoof article by Isaac Asimov which had appeared in the March 1948 issue of “Astounding”(beginning on page 120).

It was entitled, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” . Asimov not only wrote fiction for the magazine, but was also engaged in research towards a doctorate in chemistry at this time. He hated the formal  style required for scientific writing and, to vent his frustration, submitted an elaborate ‘scientific paper’ to Campbell (complete with made-up graphs and citations) about an chemical substance which was so soluble that it dissolved 1.12 seconds before you added water.

Winter’s introduction goes on to provide more assurances that Dianetics is intended to be taken seriously – including a reference to the publication of an early version which Hubbard had recently published in the Explorers Journal. This appeal to authority is somewhat shaky – the reader might reasonably question the ability of explorers to access a theory concerning psychiatry.

Remember that, earlier, in his editorial, Campbell stated that Hubbard’s article, “[…] describes a technique of mental therapy of such power that it will, I know, seem fantastic”. Why does Campbell almost express doubt – and why are both Campbell and Winters apparently afraid that Dianetics would be mistaken for a spoof article?

Campbell, Winters and Ceppos must have spent considerable time cloistered with Hubbard, planning how they were going to transform the world. What seemed so convincing in Hubbard’s famously persuasive presence may have seemed a little less so on the eve of publication (especially as they had staked their reputations on Hubbard’s unsubstantiated claims).

Winters on Psychiatry

Winters continues his introduction by setting up a straw man (page 44). He criticizes psychiatry for claims which only a small minority of the profession would have made at that time.  Bearing in mind that Winters was a general practitioner, not a psychiatrist it is difficult to take these his pronouncements seriously.

Modern psychiatry holds that predisposition to insanity is heritable and that there is no cure for several forms of insanity – they can only be treated by surgically excising a portion of the brain in a prefrontal lobotomy, or – this is an actual and description of the operation known as a transorbital leukotomy – by electro-shocking a patient unconscious and running an ice-picklike [sic] instrument into the brain by thrusting it through the eye-socket back of the eyeball, and slashing the brain with it.

This reads more like propaganda than a medical article, and there are a number of factual errors.

  • At this time, many psychiatrists practised psychodynamic therapies e.g. psychoanalysis – in fact, Dianetics owes a considerable debt to psychoanalysis (there are references to Freud in the article). Both systems teach that mental illnesses can be cured by bringing the suppressed memories of traumatic events back into the conscious mind. They treated on inherited mental illnesses which were acquired, not inherited, and emphatically did not practice psycho-surgery
  • Patients were not prepared for psycho-surgery by electro-socking them into unconsciousness. Winters is carelessly conflating two of the most unpopular psychiatric treatments of the time electro-shock therapy and psycho-surgery (or, worse, deliberately conflating them for dramatic effect).
  • Winters description of a transorbital leukotomy is a travesty of the procedure. The instrument was carefully inserted behind the eye and used to sever connective tissue between the two hemispheres of the brain with a precise movement. It was not “thrust” through the eye-socket nor was the brain “slashed”. This was surgery, not a swordfight.

This is not to defend Electroshock or psycho-surgery.

  • Electro-shock is rarely used in twenty-first century medicine (and then only in conjunction with muscle relaxants which obviate the seizures which gave the procedure such a bad reputation in the 50s)
  • Psycho-surgery is rarely if ever used today – leukotomy is not only ineffective as a treatment, but its side effects are worse than the disease.

Both treatments have been replaced by modern medications, which are typically effective with minimal side effects (that is, the side effects are far less debilitating than the mental illness they are used to treat).

It is interesting that Hubbard and Winters should choose electroshock and leukotomy two procedures (which were, even in the 50s, used only a last resort) to represent psychiatry. They were both extremely distressing to witness, and focussing exclusively on them made psychiatrists seen to be unsympathetic characters. Dianetics could then be presented as a humane alternative.

Winters concludes by doing exactly this. Dianetics is presented as a universal panacea for mental illness without offering any supporting evidence whatsoever.

Dianetics denies this thesis. Insanity is not due to heritable factors- but it is contagious. Any any [sic] insanity not based on actual organic destruction of the brain can be cured, to retain an more-than-normal mental stability and clarity Dianetics offers hope where psychiatry can only be gloomy.

This claim quickly proved to be insupportable and irresponsible. Dianetics actually proved unable to cure Campbell’s sinusitis, let alone intractable mental illnesses.

Winter’s Soft Sell

dianetics bookNear the end of his introduction, Winters observes:

One final note: the following article will not supply you with sufficient information to make you a dianetic operator. That Information will be given in a book being published by Hermitage House.* In order to practice any scientific technique successfully you must know more about it than can be told in an article of this length.

*Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health – Manual of Dianetic Therapy – Hermitage House, One Madison Ave., New York City. $3.00

It is difficult not to raise an eyebrow at this passage. According to Winters, reading an article in a 25 cent pulp science fiction magazine will not enable layman to cure all mental illness (and most physical ones). To achieve this extraordinary power they will have to spend $3.00 and read a 343-page book.

The full-page advertisement for “Dianetics” below appears later in the magazine (on page 155, where it interrupts a the second instalment of a serial by A E Van Vogt “The Wizard of Linn”).

In the space of a few dozen pages, the price of a copy of “Dianetics” has already  increased by 25% to $4.00

dianetics ad ASF may 1950The publisher (Art Ceppos) appears to be following the same line as Campbell and Winters  Stating that,

“The book presents sufficient details so that any experimenter can duplicate and check the validity and postulates of Dianetics” and inviting “[…] the testing by modern medical and scientific workers, using standard scientific methods of any one and all the claims made in this book”.

This is obviously false if only because, 65 years later, Mental and physical illnesses are still with us, and are not being routinely cured by ‘Dianetic Operators’.

Once again, great pains are taken to enhance Hubbard’s credibility. The advertisement claims that the book includes contributions by:

  • John W Cambell (“[…] nuclear physicist and author of The Atomic Story” who contributed a brief article describing the scientific method
  • Will Durant, a famous American writer, historian, and philosopher to whom the book is dedicated. Durant, however, made no contribution to the book, and certainly did not endorse it
  • Donald H Rogers who provided [… ] “circuit graphs” (whatever they are – another name for flow diagrams?).

Hubbard’s Article

dianetics ASF headlineThis is a very long article, bizarrely illustrated (in typical “Astounding” style) by a leading pulp magazine artist.

There are significant differences between this version and the one presented earlier in “The Explorer’s Journal” and later in the Book “Dianetics”

To do the article justice, I will examine it in detail in the next part of this series.

If you want to read it for yourself, in context, you can download the entire May 1950 issue of “Astounding” here.


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