A Life Dedicated to Helping the Mentally Ill
E. Fuller Torrey has lots of brains. They arrive at the rate of about one a week, packed in dry ice and FedExed from coroners around the country. Today he has 398 brains, some whole, some sliced, some diced, some floating in jars, some stored at minus-70 degrees in 52 freezers at his “brain bank” in Bethesda, Md.
Most of Torrey’s brains come from people who suffered from severe mental illness--schizophrenia or depression or manic-depression. About half are the brains of people who committed suicide.
Torrey sends sections of the brains to scientists worldwide who are studying the biology of mental illness. He and some colleagues do research of their own, investigating Torrey’s controversial hypothesis that schizophrenia might be caused by a viral infection, possibly an infection spread by cats.
But the most interesting brain in Torrey’s lab isn’t in a jar or a freezer. It’s beneath Torrey’s shaggy, graying hair.
It’s a brain that stores memories of his 63 years--his work as a doctor in Ethiopia, Alaska and the south Bronx, his five tempestuous years as an administrator at the National Institute of Mental Health, his seven years as a staff psychiatrist on wards full of psychotics, his 16 years of volunteer work with homeless schizophrenics in shelters.
Torrey has produced 16 books, works of science and history, and a few witty but angry attacks on his profession, psychiatry, some bearing titles that struck his colleagues like a thumb in the eye--”Freudian Fraud” and “Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists.”
Within his profession, he’s been widely attacked as a dissident, a gadfly, a troublemaker. But then something happened: A wealthy couple with a mentally ill son put their fortune behind Torrey’s efforts.
Now, Torrey runs a foundation that distributes more than $20 million a year, which makes the aging gadfly second only to the federal government as a source of grant money for the study of schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness.
Giving away money, he notes, has done wonders for his reputation.
“I’ve never had so many friends,” he says. “When I have millions of dollars to give away, people who wouldn’t speak to me 10 years ago have decided that maybe they should speak to me. I’m alarmingly respectable now.”
When Torrey was a Princeton undergraduate, his mother called to tell him his sister Rhoda had begun hallucinating and screaming, “The British are coming!”
Rhoda was examined at various psychiatric hospitals, where Torrey heard alleged experts report that her delusions were caused by the psychic trauma of their father’s death more than a decade earlier.
“Even at the time, knowing very little about it, that seemed absurd to me,” he says. “It looked like she had a very severe brain disease.”
She did. She had schizophrenia, a mental illness characterized by delusions and hallucinations. Rhoda has since been in and out of mental hospitals. Watching her ordeal is a major reason why Torrey has spent much of his life studying schizophrenia.
He’d always wanted to be a doctor. After medical school at McGill University in Montreal and an internship in San Francisco, Torrey joined the Peace Corps in 1964 and went to Ethiopia. He spent a year as a doctor in a federally funded South Bronx clinic, then did his psychiatric residency at Stanford University. While there, he earned a master’s degree in anthropology, doing a comparative study of therapists from Ethiopia, Borneo and California.
That study served as the basis for “Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists,” a droll book that concluded the two groups “get about the same results.”
In 1970, Torrey became assistant to the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in the Washington suburb of Bethesda.
“Almost from Day One I was in trouble,” he says with a smile that suggests he isn’t particularly penitent. Torrey attacked his Freudian colleagues who said schizophrenia was caused by bad mothers. He suggested it was a brain disease, though he wouldn’t be proved right for another decade. He also suggested that psychiatrists use their medical training to treat schizophrenics and other severely ill patients and let the “worried well” tell their troubles to “social workers or bartenders or hairdressers.”
He irritated even colleagues who shared his views. “He makes caricatures of things he doesn’t agree with, which can be very painful,” says Richard Wyatt, chief of neuropsychiatry at NIMH. “He’s usually right, but his caricatures can be difficult to handle.”
When Torrey advocated that psychiatrists who had been trained on government grants should be compelled to spend two years working in federal medical clinics, the heads of 15 university psychiatry departments came to NIMH to suggest he be fired.
He wasn’t, but he soon decided he wanted to take a sabbatical as far as possible from the NIMH bureaucracy.
“I went to the Indian Health Service and I said, ‘What is your most remote location?’ ” he recalls.
That was St. Paul’s, a tiny, frozen, treeless island off the Alaskan coast, home to about 500 impoverished Aleuts. Torrey’s family moved there in 1975.
“It was a very good year for my kids,” he says. “They learned that everybody does not live the way people live in Bethesda.”
Torrey shocked his colleagues by volunteering to work as a ward psychiatrist at St. Elizabeths, Washington’s ancient asylum.
“My friends were convinced that I’d gone psychotic, because that was the lowest-status thing you could do,” he says.
“He did a marvelous job with these very sick patients,” recalls Roger Peele, who was his boss. “If I had somebody that nobody else could handle, I’d send them to Fuller.”
“He truly, truly, truly cared about the patients he worked with,” says former St. Elizabeths psychiatrist Judith Nowak.
Torrey became curious about the hospital’s possibly most famous patient: Ezra Pound, the American poet charged with treason after making propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini during World War II. Declared insane, Pound lived at St. Elizabeths from 1946 to 1958; he died in 1972.
Torrey asked to see Pound’s records and was told they were off-limits. Aided by friendly lawyers, Torrey gained access to Pound’s psychiatric file and concluded the poet had never been insane.
“Everyone who looked at him said, ‘This guy’s not psychotic,’ ” he says.
Pound had been saved from a treason trial by Winfred Overholser, who’d been superintendent of St. Elizabeths. Overholser admired Pound’s poetry and permitted him to live in a private room at the hospital, where he wrote three books, received visits from literary celebrities and enjoyed conjugal relations with his wife and several mistresses.
In 1981, Torrey exposed Overholser’s coddling of Pound in an article in Psychology Today that he later expanded into the book “The Roots of Treason,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for biography.
But a few days after the Psychology Today article appeared, he was demoted from a division director at the hospital to a mere ward doctor.
In 1984, when Laurie Flynn walked in for her first day as executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, she found a pile of mailbags, all stuffed with letters.
Torrey had just published “Surviving Schizophrenia,” a guide for patients and their families. He appeared on Phil Donahue’s TV show, urging people seeking help to contact the fledgling group of fewer than 50,000 members. The result was this avalanche of mail.
“Nobody had ever said the word ‘schizophrenia’ on popular television, and people came out of the woodwork seeking help,” Flynn recalls. “For many years, mothers were told they were the cause of the problem, and here comes Fuller Torrey saying, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t the family’s fault. These are brain diseases.’ Here was a psychiatrist saying, ‘I know what you’re going through because my sister has the problem.’ It’s hard to overemphasize what a hero he was back in the early days.”
Torrey donated the book’s royalties to the alliance and helped build the group into a powerful lobbying organization with more than 220,000 members.
They lobbied together for the alliance’s agenda: Torrey, the verbal bomb-thrower; Flynn, the soft-spoken centrist. But their partnership collapsed in December 1999. That’s when the group published Torrey’s scathing attack on NIMH, in which he said the agency spent too little money for research on severe mental illnesses while funding studies on such topics as the mating habits of the eastern bluebird.
When his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late ‘80s, Ted Stanley read a dozen books on the subject. He was most impressed with Torrey’s “Surviving Schizophrenia.”
“He’s a good writer and a good thinker,” Stanley says.
Stanley is a rich man, head of a mail-order company. In 1989 he wrote to Torrey, saying he wanted to donate $50,000 to mental health work and asking what he should do with it.
Torrey suggested hiring somebody to lobby the government to spend more for research on mental illness. So Stanley donated the money to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill to hire a lobbyist.
A couple of years later, Stanley and his wife asked: “Suppose we donated a million dollars a year. Then how would you spend it?”
Torrey suggested they fund research projects, so they set up the Stanley Foundation and put Torrey in charge of it. Over the past decade, the Stanleys have given more than $100 million to fund research on schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses. This year the foundation will spend $21.3 million on dozens of research projects worldwide. Soon its annual spending will increase to more than $30 million.
“We are supporting a quarter of the research on schizophrenia and half the research on manic-depression in both the United States and Europe,” Torrey says.
For years, Torrey refused Stanley’s offers to pay him for running the foundation. But with his wife planning to retire soon, Torrey recently agreed to a $115,000 salary.
Now Torrey runs the foundation and its brain bank, which has shipped 100,000 sections of brain tissue to researchers on several continents. But what excites him most is his research into a theory that has obsessed him for nearly three decades: that schizophrenia might be caused by a viral infection.
“I developed this delusional system,” he says wryly, “that this is an infectious disease. So I’ve got to figure out what the infection is and prove it; otherwise, everybody will be sure I’m crazy.”
His theory is that schizophrenia is brought on by a virus that invades the brain--possibly in utero, possibly in childhood--then lies dormant for years before damaging parts of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotion.
The theory is based on the fact that schizophrenia, which affects about 1% of Americans, is not evenly distributed around the world. Torrey says it’s particularly prevalent in places where cats are common house pets. Perhaps cats, already well known as carriers of the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, might also carry something that causes or triggers schizophrenia.
It’s just a theory, as yet unproved but, as Herbert Pardes, a former director of NIMH, says, “It’s a reasonable hypothesis, one of several reasonable hypotheses.”
And it’s a hypothesis that gets plenty of funding. The Stanley Foundation gives about $1.3 million a year to researchers at Johns Hopkins University who have been collaborating with Torrey on this research for more than a decade.
If Torrey’s theory is correct, someday there might be a vaccine for schizophrenia. “Twenty years from now,” he says, “I’ll be surprised if we can’t do that.”
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