2003: Harry Wilmer and “People Need People”

Craig Fees, “Harry Wilmer and “PEOPLE NEED PEOPLE”,¬†ABC Television Network, October 11, 1961″, Joint Newsletter 7 (2003), p. 55

 

During the Korean War, in early 1955, the United States Navy sent American psychiatrist Commander Harry A. Wilmer to visit Tom Main at the Cassel Hospital, T.P. Rees at Warlingham Park, and Maxwell Jones at Belmont. It was a return; he’d first visited in 1950. At the unlocked Cassel, “Pre-school children live in rooms with their mothers. It is a democratic hospital in which the roles and attitudes of the staff are under as intense scrutiny as the patients’.” At Warlingham Park, a state hospital with over 1,000 beds and no locked doors, with “intensive group therapy and emphasis on the hospital as a community” Dr. Wilmer asked T.P. Rees “”No locks? What do you do if a patient gets violent?” Dr. Rees regarded me over his crescent-shaped glasses and replied, “They don’t”.” At Belmont “the therapeutic community functions at its exciting zenith…”

The quotes are from a paper by Harry Wilmer entitled “People need people: A therapeutic community in a U.S. Navy psychiatric ward”, published in Mental Hygiene 41:2 (1957), 163-169. It was written while Dr. Wilmer was assigned to the Naval Medical Research Institute at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland, consulting with people like Tom Main, Maxwell Jones and Dennie Briggs during the writing of what became his book, Social Psychiatry in Action: A Therapeutic Community, published by Charles C. Thomas (Springfield, Ill) in 1958.

The paper opens with “A young man…sitting in a group of 25 patients gathered around a doctor at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif. In the group also sit hospital corpsmen, nurses, a social worker and a clinical psychologist. This is the community of people – patients and staff – in which the man will begin to recover from his first psychotic break…This is the admission ward of the psychiatric service, where patients remain for 10 days before being assigned either to locked or unlocked wards.”

This was an experiment, carried out between July 1955 and April 1956, during which 939 patients passed through the ward… “a constantly changing group with 44.4% suffering from psychoses, 26.6% from psychoneuroses, 28.3% from character and personality disorders and 0.7% from acute situational maladjustment…Not once did I find it necessary to put a patient in a seclusion room or to restrain him…In the four months preceding the operation of the therapeutic community 440 patients were admitted to this ward and were given 314 oral or parenteral doses of barbiturates. In the last four months of the study 443 patients were admitted and received 29 oral or parenteral doses of barbiturates, most of these ordered by the officer of the day.”

On the eleventh of October 1961 the American Broadcasting Company broadcast a television play based on this experiment: indeed, based on Dr. Wilmer’s paper and book. Called “People Need People”, it was the inaugural program in Alcoa Premiere, a major new television series fronted by Fred Astaire. In it, Fred Astaire introduced Admiral Chester W. Nimitz – the profoundly respected Commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II, who had signed the Japanese surrender document on behalf of the United States in 1945 (and has a freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area named after him) – who read an introduction he himself had written.

Though Henry Greenberg was credited as the screenwriter, in fact most of the dialogue was written by Harry Wilmer himself. The program was broadcast by the BBC in the following year.