William Alanson White

William Alanson White (1870-1937) was an American psychiatrist and hospital administrator. Physician, writer, teacher, and humanitarian, he represented an integral part of the development of modern psychiatry.

William Alanson White was born on Jan. 24, 1870, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His home was only half a block from a hospital and medical school, and his friendship with the sons of a surgeon instilled an early desire to become a physician. He won a scholarship to Cornell at the age of 15 and eventually obtained his degree in medicine in 1891 from Long Island Medical School. A year later he was appointed to the staff at Binghamton State Hospital.

White considered crucial to the development of his interest in psychiatry his association with Boris Sidis, then working with hypnosis on problems of dissociation. This laid the groundwork for his acceptance of Freud's doctrine of the unconscious, which later gained acceptance in the United States largely through White's efforts. He also formed a close friendship with Dr. Smith Ely Jelliffe, with whom he subsequently founded and edited the Psychoanalytic Review.

White's distinguished contributions at Binghamton led to an appointment in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt to the superintendency of the Government Hospital for the Insane, in Washington, now Saint Elizabeths Hospital. There followed several difficult years of reorganization and building construction, complicated by congressional investigations. White's calm, logical presentation of his ideas and plans, with emphasis upon patient welfare, prevailed.

Among White's innovations were the establishment of a psychological laboratory (1907) and later the Medical and Surgical Building (1920). He encouraged scientific investigations and publications, developed the School of Nursing, and started social work and occupational therapy at the hospital.

Among White's approximately 200 papers and 19 books were Outlines of Psychiatry (1907), a major medical textbook for 30 years; Modern Treatment of Nervous and Mental Diseases (with Jelliffe, 1913); and the personally revealing Autobiography of a Purpose, published posthumously (1938). Some of the earliest American writings on psychiatry and the law came from his pen. He attempted to secure changes in commitment laws and permit voluntary admissions. His testimony in the famous Loeb-Leopold murder trial is well known.

With his singular lucidity of thought and expression, White influenced, perhaps more than anyone else, the acceptance of psychiatry by other physicians and by the public. He was professor of neurology and psychiatry at both the George Washington and Georgetown universities and held the presidency of the American Psychiatric Association in 1924-1925. He was president also of the American Psychopathological Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the First International Congress on Mental Hygiene (1930).

Under his aegis Saint Elizabeths Hospital prospered. By the time of White's death in Washington on March 7, 1937, it was perhaps the best-known hospital of its kind in the world. To this day it has endeavored to fulfill a unique function within the Federal service. The William Alanson White Foundation, established in 1933, sponsors the Washington School of Psychiatry and publishes Psychiatry, a journal dedicated to White's memory.

Further Reading on William Alanson White

Autobiographical material which provides rich insight into White's personality is in his Forty Years of Psychiatry (1933) and William Alanson White: The Autobiography of a Purpose (1938). Otherwise, material on white is largely found in journals rather than in books. Gregory Zilbourg in the American Psychiatric Association's One Hundred Years of American Psychiatry (1944) covers the general background very well and pays tribute to White. Dr. Winfred Overholser, who succeeded White as superintendent of St. Elizabeths, describes White's work in some detail in the Centennial Commission's Centennial Papers, Saint Elizabeths Hospital, 1855-1955 (1956).

Additional Biography Sources

White, William A. (William Alanson), William Alanson White, New York: Arno Press, 1980, 1938.