Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Medical Murders

Scull, Andrew
Date published: 
March 2005

Madhouse reveals a long-suppressed medical scandal, shocking in its brutality and sobering in its implications. It shows how a leading American psychiatrist of the early twentieth century came to believe that mental illnesses were a purely biological phenomenon, the product of chronic infections that poisoned the brain. Convinced that he had uncovered the single source of psychosis, Henry Cotton, superintendent of the Trenton State Hospital, New Jersey, launched a ruthless campaign to “eliminate the perils of pus infection”. Teeth were pulled, tonsils excised, stomachs, spleens, colons, uteruses were all sacrificed in an extraordinary assault on “focal sepsis”.
Many patients did not survive Cotton's surgeries; thousands more were left mangled and maimed. Cotton’s work was controversial, yet none of his colleagues questioned his experimental practices. Adolf Meyer, still regarded as the greatest American psychiatrist of the first half of the twentieth century, suppressed criticism of Cotton. The British medical establishment lionized him as 'a new Lister’, and subsequent historians and psychiatrists have ignored events that questioned their favourite narratives of scientific and humanitarian progress

In a remarkable feat of historical detective work, Andrew Scull exposes the full, frightening story of madness among the mad-doctors. Drawing on a wealth of documents and interviews, he reconstructs in vivid detail a nightmarish, cautionary chapter in modern psychiatry when professionals failed to police themselves.

Andrew Scull was born in Britain and educated at Oxford. He is professor of sociology and science studies, University of California, San Diego. Among his publications are Museums of Madness (1979), The Most Solitary of Afflictions (1993), Masters of Bedlam (1996) and Undertaker of the Mind (2001).