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2. Rockefeller Foundation and the failure of psychiatry as a science

    The real story of psychiatry

    Rife with theories, opinions and in disarray

    What was emerging in the late 19th century and what would become ‘modern psychiatry’ was in a state of disarray. The activity was not generally accepted and had a poor reputation in academia and the medical community. There were a few, scattered individuals researching the subject and fewer teaching it. The subject itself was rife with theories and opinions and about as far from a formulated science as you could get.

    Academia’s very poor opinion of psychiatry is shown in this statement by David Edsall, dean of Harvard Medical School, in a report to the Rockefeller Foundation trustees in 1930: “Psychiatry,” Edsall informed them, “now is dominated by elusive and inexact methods of study and by speculative thought” and could claim no real advances in “real knowledge …Any efforts to employ the more precise methods have been slight and sporadic.“ 1

    The Rockefeller Foundation takes control

    In the 19th century, the industrialization of the United States resulted in certain individuals controlling enormous wealth. Very late in the 19th century for various reasons, large foundations were established, stated to be philanthropic and donating large sums of money toward various causes decided by individuals that controlled them.

    One of these was the Rockefeller Foundation, which from 1913 forward, among other things, made contributions toward Mental Hygiene – which to the Foundation embraced eugenics and what they were defining as ‘psychiatry’.

    In 1932 the Rockefeller Foundation had singled out psychiatry for ‘special attention’ and attempted to stage-manage psychiatry into the scientific activity it thought it should be.2

    The Rockefeller Foundation and ‘biological psychiatry ’

    What we now see as ‘biological psychiatry’ originated with the German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin. Kraepelin’s patient and first sponsor of his German Institute for Psychiatric Research, James Leob, was the son of Simon Loeb of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., the Rockefeller Foundation’s investment bank. And it was Loeb who eventually introduced Kraepelin to the Rockefeller Foundation with the result that Kraepelin’s view on biological psychiatry defined the foundations or at least a considerable ‘meeting of minds’ occurred.  3

    The foundation’s concept of psychiatry is explained in its 1932 Annual Report and undoubtedly mirrors the ‘biological psychiatry’ of Emil Kraepelin, even down to the eugenics:

    Special attention has been given to the field of psychiatry”… “How badly needed is knowledge in this field may be inferred from the economic, moral, social, and spiritual losses occasioned by the criminal insane, the delinquents, the feeble-minded, the emotionally unstable, and the psychopathic, and the widespread but preventable anxieties, tantrums, phobias, complexes, and unbalanced behavior of otherwise normal human beings. Stress is therefore needed on studies throwing more light on the function of the nervous system, the role of internal secretions, the factors of heredity, the diseases affecting the mental and psychical phenomena, and in general the whole field of psychobiology” 4

    The Kraepelin ‘Institute for Psychiatric Research,’ paid for with Rockefeller Foundation funds in 1928. Now called the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry

    ‘Biological psychiatry’ had supporters in the Rockefeller Institute, including Alan Gregg as Director of the Medical Sciences Division and Simon Flexner, an experimental pathologist and trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. From 1926 archive records: ‘Although Simon Flexner did not know Kraepelin, he told Vincent [George Edgar Vincent, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation] the German psychiatrist’s work was “the sort of thing that ought to be encouraged – psychiatry coming to the front as a most important subject which had so far been ignored” ‘ 5

    The Rockefeller Foundation paid for the building and laboratory at Kraepelin’s Institute for Psychiatric Research describing it as a ‘psychiatric clinic of international importance in Munich.’  6  The foundation also funded Kraepelin’s institute right through to the beginning of World War II in 1939, when only sanctions against Germany made further funding impossible.  7  

    The Rockefeller Foundation’s psychiatry foisted on the world

    With some aspects already in place for some years, in 1939 the foundation’s strategy was codified and expressed as a self-perpetuating strategy of three phases:

    1. ‘Giving special attention to methods of teaching’ – providing competent training facilities for psychiatry, initially envisaged for the United States,Canada and United Kingdom.
    2. ‘The second phase of our program should begin to go into action in 1940, and thereafter it would gradually supersede the general aid represented by our present phase. In this period of the 1940’s the plan is to aid in the building up of a few research centers’.
    3. ‘Our third and final step should be the extension and application of the results obtained in the two preceding steps. We plan to extend standards of teaching and of research to countries now seriously backward, and we also look forward to the application in America and elsewhere of better psychiatric practices in hospitals, schools, courts, and social work. This work of extension and application would be maintained, so far as circumstances favor, along with the first two developments.’ 8

    As a result, the foundation’s version of psychiatry was spread throughout the world by a steady stream of funding for teaching and research, the creation of Psychiatry Departments in Universities, and through professional associations such as the American Psychiatric Association.

    These are just some of the universities and institutions which had psychiatric departments founded/funded within a few years: USA – John Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Washington, California, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Tulane. Canada – McGill, Montreal. Europe – Maudsley, Oxford, Tavistock, Lister Institute London, Lund, Leiden, Amsterdam, Paris, Royal Caroline Institute Stockholm, Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Institute for Psychiatric Research Munich (Kraepelin), and many more. By 1934 the foundation was funding psychiatric research and fellowships in 23 countries.

    (For a full listing of Rockefeller expenditures by year, see the Rockefeller Foundation Annual Reports,1932 forward, which can be found on the Internet Archive or The Rockefeller Foundation archive.)

    Science captured by money

    Money” (CC BY 2.0) by Cooperweb

    The Rockefeller Foundation was always enforcing its own view of what ‘science’ in the field of mental health consisted of, which primarily centered around ‘biological psychiatry’. Using the enormous wealth offered, teaching and scientific institutions and academia were essentially ‘bought off’ to forward the Rockefeller view, those that differed from it were neglected or even fought. 9 10 11

    The entire subject and activity of mental health within academia and medicine had been captured by the Rockefeller Foundation’s view by means of one pervasive thing – money.

    One example that lays this bare was the statement made by Linus Pauling the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 when applying to the Rockefeller Foundation for further funding in 1934:

    “It seemed pretty clear to me that I would have difficulty in getting further support from the Rockefeller Foundation unless I became interested in chemistry in relation to biology,” he wrote. So he did what he felt he needed to do. He followed the money, shifting his research away from minerals and toward biochemistry. “The foregoing episode,” he later noted dryly, “suggests that granting agencies can influence the support of science.” 12

    Psychiatry’s failure as a science – a ‘social racket’

    By the late 1940s, the men running the Rockefeller Foundation had come to the realization that their actions and millions of dollars spent to stage manage psychiatry into what they hoped was a valid scientific activity, had failed. Even worse, there was concern the foundation had been culpable in ‘promoting and carrying on a social racket.’

    Although terribly disturbing, somehow it wasn’t too surprising to me. Isn’t there any way to blast this situation? Doesn’t a continued and general refusal to permit or attempt validation of psychotherapeutic methods put everyone concerned, including ourselves, in a position of promoting or carrying on a social racket? How can the charlatans be dealt with if the good men will give no validation but their own individual say sos? Chester I Barnard, President of the Rockefeller Foundation. 1948. 13  

    Robert S Morison, then head of the Medical Sciences division and directly responsible for the foundation’s psychiatry projects answered Chester Barnard. While still promoting that the psychiatric projects may have at least produced some things of value (what else could he say after millions were spent on his watch – $10 million [more than $200 million value today] in grants to psychiatry between 1931 and 1946), the embarrassment and dismay regarding the subject of psychiatry is evident:

    “There have been several times recently when I have felt that the leaders of American psychiatry are trying to establish truth on the basis of majority vote. This is, of course, quite contrary to the usual scientific procedure of submitting evidence which can stand on its own merits in a candid world.”

    Robert S Morison. 1948.

    “Whatever may be the truth of this matter, the fact remains that the dramatic increase in understanding of normal and abnormal behavior provided by modern psychiatry has convinced the liberal members of the medical profession that psychiatry deserves a hearing. In other words, the campaign of psychiatrists for recognition has succeeded beyond expectations. Since this improvement in status has been won with little reference to scientific evidence, it is natural that psychiatrists under­ rate the necessity of providing such evidence in the future. It is here that I think they are making their greatest mistake for I believe they underrate the tentativeness with which acceptance has been extended. My guess is that most medical men who have accepted psychiatry have essentially said to themselves, “These people seem to have something that is worth listening to; let’s give them a break.” They are still waiting, however, for evidence of the sort which has validated, for instance, the use of antibiotics. If this is not forthcoming within the next ten or fifteen years they may react rather violently, partly out of embarrassment for having extended a welcoming hand to a group which finally failed to produce.” …

    There have been several times recently when I have felt that the leaders of American psychiatry are trying to establish truth on the basis of majority vote. This is, of course, quite contrary to the usual scientific procedure of submitting evidence which can stand on its own merits in a candid world.” 14

    Morison went on to vent his frustration with psychiatry over later years: In the early 1950’s: “the development of research has lagged badly so that psychiatric practice is still without a scientific foundation.” 15

    ‘Strange cults and theories’

    After some years of working on the subject, in 1937 the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Raymond Fosdick, described psychiatry as Frequently isolated from the rest of medicine, psychiatry has sometimes run to strange cults and theories. 16

    It is easy to look at the impressive buildings and shining laboratories, all paid for with Rockefeller Foundation money, and yet the picture of what ‘biological psychiatry’ actually meant for patients is very different indeed.

    Following are some of the ‘strange cults and theories’ – none of which were based on any science at all – that the Rockefeller Foundation was faced with in their failed attempt to legitimize psychiatry as a science.

    Some of the ineffective and cruel psychiatric treatments of the first half of the 20th century.

    Psycho surgery

    In the 1930s neuroscientist, John Fulton was experimenting on chimpanzees. The chimpanzees would understandably get upset when Fulton betrayed agreements he made with them and ‘pacified’ them through the removal of the animal’s frontal lobes of their brains. This somehow inspired Egas Moniz in 1935 to inject pure ethanol into human brains and later to drill a hole in a person’s head and take cores from the prefrontal lobes of the brain.

    In 1936, taking the lead from Moniz, Walter Freedman with James Watts avidly promoted and performed slashing of the interconnecting tissue from the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain (lobotomy) in the United States, leaving behind tens of thousands of victims.

    Not surprisingly, no patients were cured.

    Electroconvulsive Therapy

    In 1938, a neurologist, Ugo Cerletti, went to a slaughterhouse to get some meat for his dinner. While there he noticed that the pigs which were screaming in terror, awaiting death, could be pacified by the use of electroshock to the animal’s brain. Astonishingly, Cerletti saw this as a treatment for persons with a mental illness.

    This barbaric practice which cures nothing continues to be used even today when psychiatric drugs fail to produce any result  

    Chemical seizures and shock

    Insulin shock therapy

    Psychiatrists developed several appalling chemical treatments that were designed to produce seizures or intense shocks in the body, which, based on the opinions of the originators would treat mental illness or cure, but did not.

    Insulin shock therapy (1927) involved giving an unconscious patient large doses of insulin to send them into a coma lasting weeks. Deep sleep therapy (1920s) where patients were heavily drugged for prolonged periods (and later included electroshock while unconscious). Pentylenetetrazol (1934) was used to drive patients into often prolonged and uncontrolled seizures. Camphor (1934) was also used to induce dangerous seizures although it was extremely toxic.

    People were even deliberately infected with malaria (1921) on the basis of the side effects of the disease would be less than the effects of their mental illness.

    The monstrous state of Kraepelin’s German psychiatry – Aktion T4

    Unable to cure anyone, all that was offered was sterilization or death.

    The failure of Kraepelin’s ‘biological psychiatry’ had been further amplified through the monstrous state of German psychiatry under the direction of Kraepelin and his successors being laid bare to the world after the collapse of the NAZI regime in 1945. Unable to cure anyone, all that was offered was sterilization or death.

    From 1934 to 1945, an estimated 400,000 disabled persons and lunatic asylum patients were sterilized, and later 270,000 were murdered in killing centers or their asylums by psychiatrists – Aktion T4 – overseen by Kraepelin’s proteges and students.

    Asylums were burgeoning with people given a diagnosis of Kraepelin’s ‘‘dementia praecox’ – what we know as schizophrenia – and yet with no cure or even cause established, it is estimated that 132,000 of those diagnosed were sterilized so they wouldn’t reproduce (Kraepelin’s eugenics dominating) and between 100,000 and 137,000 were simply murdered.

    Perhaps this added to the extreme unease that the Rockefeller Foundation had regarding psychiatry after World War II and the realization that the foundation had funded the various institutions leading to this crime against humanity. 17

    display from the Sonnenstein killing center
    Display from the Sonnenstein killing center

    “The Path to the Gas Chamber”

    This display is on the wall of what was the Sonnenstein killing center, used as part of Aktion T4.

    The display shows the layout of the killing center with a waiting room, gas chamber, morgue, crematorium, and chimney room.

    It reads:

    “Employees drove the patients and residents from mental hospitals and homes to the killing centre by buses. Physicians [psychiatrists] working for Organization T4, had classified them in terms of the Nazi ideology, as ‘unworthy of living’. Nurses guided them to the commission supervised by doctors on the ground floor of the building. The doctors verified the victims’ identity and assigned them a fraudulent cause of death.”

    1. Andrew Scull. Rockefeller Archive Center. 2020.
    2. The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report 1932
    3.  Malcolm L Richardson. Abraham Flexner, American Philanthropy and Weimar Germany. Yearbook of German-American Studies 55 (2020)  
    4. The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report 1932
    5.  William H. Schneider. Rockefeller Philanthropy and Modern Biomedicine: International Initiatives 
    6.   The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report 1926
    7.   Rockefeller Foundation Annual Reports – 1926 to 1939 – which can be found on the Internet Archive or The Rockefeller Foundation archive.
    8. Rockefeller Foundation Archive. The Strategy of our program in psychiatry. 1939.
    9. Andrew Scull. Report on Research on the Rockefeller Foundation and American Psychiatry. Rockefeller Archive Center. 2020.
    10. Katherine Angel. Defining Psychiatry: Aubrey Lewis’s 1938 Report and the Rockefeller Foundation. 2003
    11. Duffy TP. The Flexner Report–100 years later. Yale J Biol Med. 2011
    12. Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins. Follow the Money.
    13. Rockefeller Foundation Archive Inter Office Communication, 4 August 1948, from Chester I Barnard, President of the Rockefeller Foundation
    14. Robert S Morison. Rockefeller Foundation Archive Inter Office Communication, 30 September 1948
    15. Andrew Scull. Report on Research on the Rockefeller Foundation and American Psychiatry. Rockefeller Archive Center. 2020.
    16. The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report 1937
    17. Rockefeller Annual reports pre-1939 covering funding for German psychiatric and eugenic organizations which can be found on the Internet Archive or The Rockefeller Foundation archive.)