Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Psychiatrist

Bookplate, Smith Ely Jelliffe

In 1942, a few years before Smith Ely Jelliffe died at his summer home at Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, he started to think about selling his vast collection of books and journals. Twenty thousand, it was estimated – volumes not dollars.

Jelliffe had to part with the library because his savings were decimated in 1929 when the stock market crashed. But he intended to keep a few thousand of his most beloved books about psychiatry, histology, and pharmacology, not to mention Tolstoy and Shakespeare.

I imagine the collection precisely organized from floor to ceiling. Each June the doctor ships his favorites from the family’s West Side apartment to the country house. In the fall the books return to the city.    

An “alienist” who gained renown testifying at some of the famous murder trials of the day, Jelliffe played an important part in the emerging field of psychiatry during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Yet he never fully entered the pantheon with Freud, Jung, Adler, and others.

The psychiatrist, early nineteenth century
(NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Some historians theorize that the psychiatrist, twice married and father of five, fell out of fashion because his second wife, Belinda (“Bee” or “Lady Bee” if you knew her well), alienated his friends and colleagues. Indeed, she did cause a stir with a shocking autobiography, thinly disguised as a novel, in 1936. Bee had once been her husband’s patient and she spared no one. 

***

 When Jelliffe was born in Brooklyn in 1866, industry already clogged the waterfront and polluted the creeks. The Navy Yard had been around since 1801. Yet swaths of what was still its own city resembled an old Dutch landscape, with churches, shops, and houses scattered along dirt roads. There were ponds where boys jumped in and stole each other’s clothes.

The son of a public-school principal, Jelliffe never played hooky. In fact, he would zip through the syllabus and ask for more. While studying at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute he developed a particular interest in microorganisms and materia medica, remedies used in the practice of medicine.

After receiving an M.D. from Columbia University around 1890, Jelliffe traveled to Europe. For the rest of his life, he would refer reverentially to his Wanderjahr.

He walked everywhere he could, crisscrossing mountains and valleys. He visited the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and England. Along the way he attended conferences and met with scientists, expanding his knowledge of germ theory and microbiology.

A youngish Victorian, Jelliffe complained about the licentiousness of the Europeans. He was grateful to live in America “even with its Wanamakers and Anthony Comstocks,” he wrote to his fiancĂ©e Helena Leeming. The prudishness would disappear by the time he immersed himself in psychoanalysis; perhaps even sooner during his honeymoon. 

Traveling in Europe as a young man, Jelliffe developed
wide-ranging intellectual interests. 


Returning to the United States, Jelliffe married Helena, a belle of Park Slope who had studied botany at Barnard College. He took a job with the Brooklyn Board of Health where he analyzed drinking water and held teaching positions at the New York College of Pharmacy, Fordham University, and St. Mary’s Training School for Nurses.

Amid stunning advances in scientific and medical research, Jelliffe’s interest shifted to psychotherapy and psychosomatic illness. Now a visiting neurologist at City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island), he treated criminals and the mentally ill – work that precipitated his role as an expert witness in the trial of Harry K. Thaw, husband of the sultry actress Evelyn Nesbit. Her affair with the architect Stanford White drove Thaw to murder the eminent New Yorker.    

Thaw did the deed in a jealous rage, firing three shots at White’s head and shoulder during a late-night show in an open-air theater perched on the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on Twenty-Sixth Street – designed by Stanford White.  

One of several psychiatrists who examined Thaw for the defense, Jelliffe coined the term “brainstorm” to describe Thaw’s mental state while planning and committing the murder. Jelliffe testified at two trials (the first ended in a mistrial). In 1908 Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity and sentenced to imprisonment for life at a state asylum. Eventually he was freed.

Pre-bookplate 

Despite financial debt, Jelliffe seems to have been a happy man. He often traveled to Europe with Helena and found his work stimulating. A prolific writer, he dove into the world of medical publishing with his longtime collaborator William Alanson White. They co-founded a monograph series on mental illness in 1908 and the first American journal devoted to psychoanalysis, The Psychoanalytic Review, in 1913. Later Jelliffe and White wrote Diseases of the Nervous System (1915), a widely respected textbook used in neurology and psychiatry.

Helena died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1916, leaving Jelliffe with oversight of their five children, ages fourteen to 21. Within a year, however, he remarried to Belinda Dobson, a nurse 24 years his junior who had wended her way to New York City from a miserable childhood replete with suicide, murder, violence, and drunkenness in North Carolina and Oklahoma.*

Smith Ely Jelliffe and Belinda, passport photo, 1920s

With Belinda, Smith Ely Jelliffe continued to travel abroad and narrowed his focus to psychosomatic illness, a longtime interest that grew out of his work in neurology.

In Sketches in Psychosomatic Medicine (1939), Jelliffe invoked the Socratic principle, as related by Plato: “One looks to the cure of the ‘soul’ in order to cure the body.”

He died in September 1945, five years after his retirement.   

 

*Belinda would publish a stunning memoir, For Dear Life (1936) and has been the subject of some scholarship. She died in 1979.

 

https://throughthehourglass.com/

3 comments:

  1. Fascinating, as always. I want to know more about Lady Bee juicy roman-a-clef.

    ReplyDelete
  2. mark - it’s on the internet archive.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mark - it’s on the internet archive.

    ReplyDelete

The Psychiatrist

Bookplate, Smith Ely Jelliffe In 1942, a few years before Smith Ely Jelliffe died at his summer home at Lake George in the Adirondack Mounta...