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Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospitalby Alex Beam
The McLean culture of relaxed, custodial care for mildly-to-very-batty aristocrats reached a nadir in the immediate postwar years. Franklin Wood, the bow-tied Rotarian, ran the hospital on a cash-and-carry basis, relying on his tiny three-ring spiral notebook for guidance on all matters of policy, personnel and patient care. Visiting the wards with a red carnation firmly planted in his lapel, Wood represented the end of an era. He would be the last non-psychiatrist to run the hospital, and he would be the last director to occupy the stately superintendent's residence just down the hill from the Eliot Chapel, where he stabled his family and a brace of pet Dalmatians. Harvard had appointed Wood for his administrative skills; the clinical work was overseen by the psychiatrist in chief, Kenneth Tillotson, bumptious, outgoing soul, who would later earn a footnote in literary history as the doctor whose electric shock treatments so traumatized Smith College junior Sylvia Plath that she attempted suicide shortly thereafter. But first Tillotson would gain wider renown, that unexpectedly transformed him and his hospital into the laughing stocks of Boston.
Tillotson had a roving eye, and it tended to land on his subordinate, one Anne Marie Salot, a 28-year old nurse who is described in Silvia Sutton's official history of McLean as "a very good looking brunette." Salot had had an affair with her boss, which, she claimed in a complaint to the State Department of Mental Health, had cost her her job. (Her complaint also stated that Tillotson's continuing interest in her was jeopardizing her mental health.) Not surprisingly, her charges cost Tillotson his job. The McLean trustees, hastily assembled in the downtown offices of "Mr. Boston," their chairman Ralph Lowell, gave Tillotson the heave-ho.
In time-honored Brahmin tradition, McLean managed to keep l'affaire Tillotson quiet. The resignation of the hospital's chief psychiatrist, and his disappearance from the roster of the Harvard Medical School, went unnoticed. The Boston Braves were in the World Series; the press had more important stories to cover. But then the state decided to pursue morals charges against the pair--and the media circus was on.
"Dr. K.J. Tillotson and Nurse Held on Morals Charge," the Boston Sunday Globe announced on November 2, 1948. The Boston papers salted their coverage with eloquent photos of the comely Ms. Salot and the staid Dr. Tillotson, whose mousy, bespectacled wife always accompanied him to the courtroom. (At one hearing, readers learned that "Miss Salot was clad in a white wool dress, tailored black coat and black hat with veil, and fashionable strapped black suede shoes." There is no offsetting description of Mrs. T.) When the hullabaloo reached fever pitch, Tillotson and Salot quickly copped guilty pleas to dodge the limelight. Like a purged commissar, Tillotson, who had run McLean in the early 1930s and served as psychiatrist-in-chief for fifteen years, saw his name vanish from the official histories of McLean and its parent, the Massachusetts General Hospital.
The press ridiculed McLean because a juicy sex story is a juicy sex story, but also because the hospital was in a position to be ridiculed. Across the country, psychoanalysis and psychology, infant sciences in the America between the wars, were gaining rapid acceptance after World War II. The Army trained a generation of psychiatrists to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock and other battlefield traumas, and once demobilized, these men fanned out across the country to bolster the reputations of the top sanatoria: the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, Austen Riggs in Stockbridge, or Hillside in New York. In Boston, the state-run Boston Psychopathic Hospital, later the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, had eclipsed McLean in reputation. Even the Veterans Administration hospitals were centers of innovation and creative thinking. But the rush of change had left McLean in its wake. The hospital had become an undistinguished backwater....
McLean needed a savior, and they needed him fast.
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