Day: June 30, 2001
Mad Poets Society: McLean Hospital, in suburban Boston,
is not the nation’s oldest mental hospital; that distinction belongs to the Pennsylvania Hospital, in Philadelphia. Nor is it generally considered the country’s best; most professionals would probably rank the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, Kansas, above McLean. But before the advent of diagnose-dose-and-discharge mental-health care, McLean, which sits on a gorgeous 240-acre campus in the town of Belmont, was probably the country’s most aristocratic mental institution and definitely its most literary. Ralph Waldo Emerson complained in a letter about the high costs of treatment for his brothers. In the late nineteenth century Henry Adams’s sharp-tongued wife, Clover, remarked to her father that McLean “seems to be the goal of every good and conscientious Bostonian.” Her brother, the treasurer of Harvard University, ended his life there. Reputable historians and even a former chief administrator of McLean insist that the father of American psychology, William James, was a patient there, although there is little evidence that this is true. Frederick Law Olmsted, who also died at McLean, chose the land for the campus. Atlantic Magazine
The essayist focuses on the three most famous latter-day McLean sojourners — Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. No mention of that other famous alumnus, James Taylor. McLean is where I had one of my first mental health jobs — as a ‘mental health worker’, previously known less gloriously as an ‘attendant’, when I was just out of college — and where some of my closest psychiatric friends and associates work. It’s certainly neither aristocratic nor literary anymore, and it’s dying as a clinical institution, surviving largely on expanding its research activities and bringing in grant funding. It’s about to sell off a large portion of its exquisite wooded grounds to developers, after a long and bitter battle with residents of its neighborhood and the town of Belmont in which it is situated.