Advertisement
 

A Life Dedicated to Helping the Mentally Ill

Profile: E. Fuller Torrey runs a foundation that's second only to the U.S. government when it comes to grants for studies in schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness.

April 16, 2001|PETER CARLSON | WASHINGTON POST

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.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|