I just finished this gothic true tale about a genuine screaming-in-the-streets-mad doctor who ran New Jersey’s state hospital in the late 1920s. He was not a renegade, but a leading mental health practitioner, celebrated in his time, though of course we’ve never heard of him, these are the horror stories swept under the rug. My gramma Connie was a victim of the butchering times so I thought it best to cut back on blogging and monitor my mental functioning during the reading. It wasn’t pleasant, and getting to these truths is not for the faint of heart. I tend to hold off on this sort of reading until the holdiay season just to put the sting on my memories of her and Madhouse delivered the right proper whallop.
Judging by the Amazon reviews there are those who would question both the writing and the reading of this material. To some these accounts are indefensible on the grounds of sheer sensationalism and fodder for lurid appetites. It is of course the cry of the pharma-slaves let the past be the past, all this historical unpleasantness is the very stuff of anti-psychiatry, fueling throwbacks who need to stop clinging to bygone errors of bygone eras and get hip to the neurotimes.
But the neurotimes have always been with us, the past isn’t the past and it isn’t nearly over. Which, the author makes clear, is one reason this book was written. The theoretical underpinnings haven’t changed, we are more entrenched in biobabble than ever before, we’ve merely traded in icepicks for chemical lobotomies.
This book is a cautionary tale, and it is validation for anyone clinging stubbornly to past errors demanding recognition for our loved ones, the horrors inflicted on unwilling human beings by bloodyminded careerists in the name of mental hygiene.
What a treat this guy was, he believed madness was caused by infection in the body, specifically teeth, because teeth are closest to the brain dontchaknow. He believed healthy people, or what he referred to as the “pre-insane” should have their teeth pulled as a preventative measure. When teeth-removal didn’t cure
masturbation insanity, he went after other body parts, systematically, on terrified and resisting patients, until he eventually killed them.
Madhouse reveals a long-suppressed medical scandal, shocking in its brutality and sobering in its implications. It shows how a leading American psychiatrist of the early twentieth century came to believe that mental illnesses were the product of chronic infections that poisoned the brain. Convinced that he had uncovered the single source of psychosis, Henry Cotton, superintendent of the Trenton State Hospital, New Jersey, launched a ruthless campaign to “eliminate the perils of pus infection.” Teeth were pulled, tonsils excised, and stomachs, spleens, colons, and uteruses were all sacrificed in the assault on “focal sepsis.”
Many patients did not survive Cotton’s surgeries; thousands more were left mangled and maimed. Cotton’s work was controversial, yet none of his colleagues questioned his experimental practices. Subsequent historians and psychiatrists too have ignored the events that cast doubt on their favorite narratives of scientific and humanitarian progress.
In a remarkable feat of historical detective work, Andrew Scull exposes the full, frightening story of madness among the mad-doctors. Drawing on a wealth of documents and interviews, he reconstructs in vivid detail a nightmarish, cautionary chapter in modern psychiatry when professionals failed to police themselves.
All that, plus it’s a potboiler. A renowned male villain (who operates disproportionately on women) is dogged by an unrenowned female hero assiged to investigate his claims of cure. She does actual legwork, interviewing surviving patients who are completely mad and sick and dying. Her unexpected findings are suppressed, but the grapevine rumors occur among fellow psychiatrists, including the head of John Hopkins, who, according to his diaries knew Cotton was delusional, and was in a position to do something about it, but kept his trap shut like all the rest of them. Reading about his failure to act in the proof of his knowing is hard to take. You see him sitting through an insane keynote address at an annual convention, knowing he knows the speaker was a torturing madman but unbelievably choosing to keep his mouth shut while bodies piled up out of sight. The cronyism of the Bush administration has nothing on institutionalized psychiatry.
Cotton was allowed to practice until his death in 1933. Long before he died, he had his two sons’ teeth removed. They grew up and killed themselves.