Nineteenhundred and forty-six

(Note: This is another part of my continuing series about the state of mental heath treatment during my parents’ time and how it affected them in caring for their first child, my older brother Michael – autistic, low functioning and nonverbal)


This was a good year. It was the year my parents got married.

Young Mom and Dad

Early 1940s

During the 1940s, a significant number of Conscientious Objectors (COs), who were forbidden by their conscience to kill, served their country in civilian capacity and came to work in mental institutions in the United States and worked in Civilian Public Service (CPS) teams. [1] Prior to 1946, four COs, (Harold Barton, Willard C. Hetzel, Philip Steer, Leonard Edelstein) worked at Philadelphia State Hospital, also known as Byberry, where the patients were treated deplorably. They realized that the abuse and poor treatment of their charges was not unique to Byberry and sought change. In 1946 they founded the National Mental Health Foundation (NMHF). In 1948, a story in a Philadelphia newspaper celebrated this accomplishment and quoted Barton who framed a very modern attitude toward the provision of mental health:

“Our mental hospitals should be centers of education – acquainting the public with its responsibility in helping afflicted persons return to a normal life as soon as possible instead of serving merely as places of confinement. … To do this we must use society’s existing institutions – the family, the school, etc. – and through them, apply accepted principles of mental health.” [2]

The foundation flourished through the involvement of prominent public figures such as former Supreme Court Judge Owen J. Roberts and publications of articles, books and pamphlets.


On May 6, 1946 Life Magazine published “Bedlam 1946: Most U.S. Mental Hospitals are a Shame and a Disgrace.” [3] The article was an exposé about Byberry and Cleveland State hospital, supported with materials gathered by the NMHF. [4] Paradoxically, “The crisis in state mental hospitals motivated Dr. Walter Freeman to devise a simple version of the lobotomy procedure, one that could be used on a mass scale.” [5]


On the psychiatric end of the spectrum, William C. Menninger founded the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) in 1946. Dr. Menninger and other psychiatrists, returning to civilian life after World War II found the state of psychiatry inadequate. [6] [7]

Mental Health Act of 1946

Finally, the Mental Health Act of 1946 came into being in that year. This “[p]rovided funding for research into causes, prevention and treatment of mental illness. It also led to establishment in 1949 of the National Institute of Mental Health and provided for Federal investigation of mental hospitals.  Investigators found apathy, neglect, and custodial care.” [8]

It seems that 1946 was a good beginning for mental health and also for my parents.

[1] Trent, J.W. Jr. Inventing the Feeble Mind. A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Berkely: U. of California Press, 1995

[2] Polier, R. Philadelphia Story – How Experiences of Four Conscientious Objectors at Byberry Resulted in a National Crusade to aid the Mentally Ill The Evening Bulletin, Philadelphia, Monday, October 18, 1948

[3] Maisel, A.Q. Bedlam 1946: Most U.S. Mental Hospitals are a Shame and a Disgrace. Life Magazine May 6, 1946

[4] Wright, F.L. Jr. Out of Sight, Out of Mind. 1947 National Mental Health Foundation, Inc. cited from

10 thoughts on “Nineteenhundred and forty-six

  1. Morning Jack 🙂 I like this post, as always very well penned. I was just wondering about your book and if you intend to be writing it in the style of your posts here?


      • I’m wondering if you might approach your book in a slightly different way. It is such a heavy duty subject, and your photos pack a punch, they add emphasis to an already difficult and emotional issue, and one that is clearly very deep seated for you. To me your frustration and your deep concern are obvious from what I have seen and read so far of the PDFs that you sent me, and as I said I found it quite emotionally overwhelming to read through it.
        I feel that if you could approach it more from the point of view that this is actually your story, even though your focus and motivation for telling your story is your brother Michael, then it would go a way to explain the your obvious feelings frustration and resentment that come across.

        Of course this is not a criticism about you, but personally my interest is in you as the writer of this story, and as a person with a first hand account of dealing with autism and how it has deeply affected your life. I like your idea too of providing academic documentation to support your account, much like you already do in your blog posts.

        I guess what I’m saying is that what I would like to read is a personal account that is supported by wonderful photography, and not a book of photography supported by pithy snippets. I feel that you have a story to tell and that you should tell it, that would make me want to buy your book.

        • I’ve had a lot of trouble finding a clear focal point for my book Brotherly Love (the PDFs I sent). I tried to make it about my search for meaning in my relationship with Mike. I don’t want to make it a ‘poor me’ story. Some of the problematic areas are the points view (in the PDF). I tried to take myself back to what I must have felt as a child, and write in that voice; then there is the adult in me, wondering how my parents coped. Now, the most recent (as yet unwritten part) is about the environment at the time and the way society and the medical profession treated intractable mental illness.
          I really appreciate your taking the time to tell me what you think, Maria.


          Warm regards,


          • Your chosen approach, i.e.i through the eyes of a child came across very well, but I just couldn’t help feeling that there was more I about your thoughts I wanted to read. I don’t think it would be a ‘poor you’ story at all, it is your story to tell. It doesn’t mean that you can’t strike a balance between the different protagonists, but essentially is this not an expose of not only a first hand account of growing up with autism, but how autism has been received and dealt with over the decades of your lives? Maybe you should write two books 🙂 Two accounts, one from the young you, and the other from your adult more wizened self? Just a thought…

            Warm Regards to you too Jack

            • There does seem to be two books’ worth of material, but I’m still looking for a way to interdigitate the two different narratives. I think it could be different than the run-of-the-mill memoir, with a bit of historical perspective, yet not an exhaustive historical treatment of mental health in the mid 20th century. Still ruminating.
              Thanks again for your thoughts.

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