Psychiatrist Writes of the Days Before Antipsychotic Drugs

     Before Thorazine and other antipsychotic medications, the severely mentally ill were housed and treated at institutions such as Manteno State Hospital southwest of Chicago. In the winter of 1956, Dr. Harvey Widroe, author of Diary of a Medical Student: Hospital of Horrors, spent three months at Manteno as a research assistant. He was then a medical student at the University of Chicago, and had qualified for the post at Manteno by his exceptional level of concern for and curiosity about mental patients and effective treatment for them.
     After his first few weeks at Manteno, Widroe began a diary in which he chronicled his most important observations. That diary is the basis for his book. Widroe's tale begins with his tour of Manteno, a shocking revelation of all the miseries that lay beyond his own comparatively livable ward, Freud II.
     I knew I was going to like the author, and want to know what happened next, when he observed a series of patients getting electric shock treatments. His distress for these people was so intense, and his curiosity so strong, that before he knew it, he was volunteering himself for a shock treatment. Thus Harvey Widroe comes across not as a stuffy doctor, but as a sympathetic human being, as prone to rash impulses as the rest of us.
     For me, the most tragic vignette is the moment in Chapter Fourteen when Harvey finally succeeds in coaxing a few words from a catatonic schizophrenic on Freud II. Zeke, typically for a catatonic, was fixed in one position, described by Widroe as "a disheveled and exhausted Statue of Liberty." Zeke, it turns out, was "...keeping the Earth from falling into the sun." These were the first and last words he ever spoke to Widroe.
     Toward the end of his stay at Manteno, Harvey fell into a depression, and no wonder. Effective drug therapy for chronic schizophrenics had not yet been discovered, so treatment was nearly impossible.
     Despite this, Widroe ends his book on a positive note: in the next-to-last chapter, What Happened Next, he explains how antipsychotic medications were eventually discovered, enabling the vast majority of mentally ill to recover and return to normal life. Many state mental hospitals, which had for so long housed and failed to treat thousands, shut down.
     This page-turner is obligatory for any mental health professional or student, and the lay reader will find it fascinating as well.

Rebecca L. Hein, Author, A Case of Brilliance

Into—and out of—the Snake Pit

     Dr. Widroe's book, a first person memoir written with Ron Kenner, has pages that will rouse your anger. About the inhumanity of the mental health world of the `50s, "Hospital of Horrors" was written from the perspective of a man who tells us he was a medical student, not yet a bona fide doctor, when he was told after signing on as a research assistant at "Freud II" that he would, in fact, be charged with the care of about eighty patients on a ward filled with very seriously mentally ill men and women. Widroe bears witness to the horrors inflicted upon these patients and those in other wards at the time, and to his feeling of helplessness over changing the system. Today he writes, we have medicines to hasten a move toward normalcy that wasn't even deemed possible then. Widroe's account of the way things were then vs. the way they are now – which he juxtaposes in the final chapter of his book  point up his positive take on mental health today: while undoubtedly there are problems with mental health care, we have come a long way from those nightmarish times he observed first-hand a half century ago.

Ina Hillebrandt, Author, How to Write Your Memoirs –

Award-Winning Finalist, International Book Awards (IBA)

Award-Winning Finalist
"Non-Fiction Narrative"
National "Best Books 2010" Awards,
sponsored by USA Book News

Award-Winning Finalist
"Health: Psychology/Mental Health"
National "Best Books 2010" Awards,
sponsored by USA Book News


By Harvey J. Widroe, M.D., with Ron Kenner (Editor,

© 2010 All rights reserved.