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10 of History’s Craziest Shrinks

Never mind lunatics taking over the asylum; history shows they’ve always been in charge. From human experimenters to genocidal maniacs, here are the 10 craziest psychiatrists, psychologists, and neurologists ever let loose on the world.

10. George Rekers

Southern Baptist minister and UCLA-trained psychologist George Rekers came to public attention in 2000 when the state of Florida paid him to support its ban on gay adoption. He proved such a useful expert witness that Arkansas hired him to support their own ban in 2004, and then Florida hired him again in 2007. As it turned out later, he was more of an “expert” witness than they realized—just not in any credible sense. Despite his avowed anti-gay stance, he was photographed in 2010 coming back from Europe with a rentboy, a male prostitute he hired through 

His hypocrisy was unforgivable. As an expert witness for Arkansas and Florida, Rekers claimed (among other things) that there was a higher risk of gay parents molesting their children or giving them AIDS. He also devoted much of his life to convincing heterosexual parents to reject their gay children. And his earlier doctoral studies at UCLA, in which he attempted to cure homosexuality, led directly to one man’s suicide. 

As for the rentboy in 2010, Rekers claimed to have hired him for help with his luggage, adding that once he realized his mistake, he spent the entire 10-day trip to London and Madrid converting the young man to Christianity.

9. Colin Bouwer

As Head of Psychiatry at the University of Otago, New Zealand, Colin Bouwer had all the access he needed to murder his wife using glucose-lowering drugs. Having gotten hold of them by forging prescriptions, he secretly administered them to induce hypoglycemia and simulate a pancreatic tumor—hospitalizing his wife many times. Doctors acting on Bouwer’s information subjected his wife to unnecessary invasive procedures. And it wasn’t until after her death that all the drugs were found in her system. Authorities also uncovered emails from Bouwer questioning experts on hypoglycemia (under an alias). His motive? He was having an affair with a colleague.

Interestingly, given the ongoing debate in psychiatry over whether psychopathy is genetic, Bouwer’s son later killed his own wife in South Africa. Then, with the help of his mum, he tried to make it look like a break-in and violent rape.

8. Aubrey Levin

Stationed at the notorious Ward 22 in Apartheid-era Pretoria, Colonel Aubrey Levin made a name for himself administering electroshock therapy to gay soldiers. That name was “Dr Shock”. Earlier in his career, he’d actually written to a parliamentary committee to urge them not to legalize homosexuality, saying he could zap it out of people instead. As Chief Psychiatrist for the military, his process was simple: he showed patients photos of naked men and encouraged them to fantasize, for which he gave them increasingly powerful electric shocks. He used a similar process on drug users and pacifists. And those who didn’t respond well to treatment (i.e. pretty much all of them) were thrown into a labor camp called Greefswald. 

It’s interesting to note here that Levin was raised Jewish by parents who lived through the Second World War and yet ardently supported South Africa’s openly antisemitic National Party.

After Apartheid, Levin emigrated to Canada to escape retribution. There, he sexually assaulted a number of male patients referred to him from prison for treatment. It wasn’t until one of them taped his advances that authorities believed the complaints and 30 other men came forward. Although he managed to silence the media, Levin was convicted in 2013—along with his wife, who tried to bribe a juror. He was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served one and a half, and he had to undergo a thorough psychiatric evaluation.

7. Andrei Snezhnevsky

“Sluggish schizophrenia” was a convenient diagnosis made up by Soviet psychiatrists. It gave authorities a pretext to arrest and institutionalize basically whoever they wanted. It was deliberately vague. Said to have a slow onset, but with symptoms that could start at any time, it made it perfectly reasonable to round up people showing no psychotic symptoms whatsoever.

One of the main psychiatrists behind this scheme was Andrei Snezhnevsky. A diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” by the likes of him meant immediate confinement in a maximum security psychiatric facility, along with the loss of civil rights and future employability.

6. Harry Bailey

Australian psychiatrist Harry Bailey was an enthusiastic proponent of “deep sleep therapy”, that is, using barbiturates to induce comas for days or weeks as a treatment for mental health issues. Between 1962 and 1979, he was directly responsible for the deaths of 24 of his unsuspecting patients. Of the other 24 who survived his “therapy”, albeit with permanent brain damage, 19 committed suicide later.

The treatment had always been controversial. It was typically used to bypass resistance when administering ECT. But it was clearly dangerous. 

Authorities took a while to catch up with his head count, but when they did the public was outraged. The Church of Scientology was particularly vocal in its condemnation of Bailey. In the end, the Chelmsford Royal Commission was set up to investigate and it put so much pressure on him that he took his own life with barbiturates. His suicide note said: “Let it be known that the Scientologists and the forces of madness have won.” There followed some long overdue reforms in Australia’s psychiatric care standards. 

5. Werner Villinger

Werner Villinger was a German psychiatrist during the Nazi era. Despite his reluctance to join the Nazi party, he was a eugenicist and a Nazi through and through. At the Bethel Institution, he was involved in some of the most heinous war crimes—like Aktion T4, which involved gassing, asphyxiating, and poisoning disabled people—all of whom he experimented on before killing.

After the war, he was anything but repentant. In fact, he adamantly opposed compensating any of the Holocaust’s victims, because, in his professional opinion, it might give them “neurotic ailments”. Scandalously, Villinger continued to practice psychiatry in West Germany and was never tried for his crimes.

4. Walter Freeman

Neurologist Walter Freeman performed the first-ever lobotomy in America—following its invention by the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz. and Freeman was so impressed by this “surgery of the soul,” as the New York Times later called it, that he sought to make it quicker and easier. The result was his transorbital lobotomy, a savagely rudimentary procedure of hammering tools like ice picks into the brain through the bones at the back of the eye sockets. He cut costs wherever he could. For example, instead of anesthetizing patients, he electro-shocked them with a portable machine. He also promoted lobotomies (formerly a last resort for otherwise untreatable conditions) as the first-line treatment for just about everything: schizophrenia, depression, OCD, headaches, chronic pain, and indigestion.

His casualties included JFK’s sister Rosemary, who was left incontinent and unable to speak after a lobotomy at the age of 23. She was one of 3,500 patients he lobotomized, 19 of whom were kids as young as four. Arrogantly, wilfully ignoring his critics, Freeman boasted his success rate of 85%; however, given his fatality rate was 15%, “success” in his mind was apparently anything just short of murder. Hence, despite his lesser reputation as the forward-thinking founder of computational neuroscience, he’ll forever be associated with the most backward procedure in psychiatry.

3. Radovan Karadžic

The “flamboyant” Radovan Karadzic trained as a psychiatrist, in Sarajevo, Denmark, and New York, long before he became known as the genocidal “Butcher of Bosnia” for his crimes in the 1990s war.

His plan, as Bosnian Serb leader, was “to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory.” Among the worst implementations of his lunatic plan was the Srebrenica massacre, which killed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

After the war, he evaded capture for more than a decade by disguising himself as a New Age healer, monk, or priest. He grew a long bushy beard, dressed in robes, and wandered from monastery to monastery—protected by the local population. The disguise worked so well that he was, allegedly, able to take part in his mother’s funeral without risking capture. He also wrote a book of poems that completely sold out at the Belgrade International Book Fair. Shockingly, he even reprised his medical career. It was only in 2016 that he was finally convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

2. Donald Ewen Cameron

Scottish-American psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron was involved in MKUltra—the CIA’s mind control program. His mystifyingly unethical work in the 1930s brought him to the agency’s attention. One of his early studies, for example, forced epileptics to sit for an hour in a room heated to 40 degrees C. Another limited their water intake to 600 ml a day, ostensibly to test the effects of dehydration on seizures. There weren’t any. In fact, the only difference between the low-water group and the control group was that the low-water group, in desperation, stole food and drink, drank water out of vases, and ate snow from window sills to hydrate. They also lost weight, suffered acidosis (from increased blood urea nitrogen), and, in one case, even died. But it got him on the CIA’s radar. 

Interestingly, similar experiments were carried out at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, and Cameron hypocritically denounced them—even going so far as to call the German race inherently cruel (entirely missing the irony). He also distinguished between ‘weak’ (e.g. German) and ‘strong’ (e.g. American) races, saying the weak should be stopped from reproducing. Despite his batshit Nazi views, he was summoned to Nuremberg after the war to evaluate Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, who even Hitler considered insane but Cameron declared fit to stand trial.

But we digress. One of Cameron’s MK Ultra subprojects was to use drugs and hypnosis to induce ‘clinical coma’ for what he called ‘psychic driving’: forcing people to listen to a recorded statement over and over again for up to 20 hours a day, 15 days in a row. It’s still used for torture today. Another area of his research, secretly funded by the CIA (as the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology), was ‘depatterning’, reducing people’s minds to a blank slate for Cameron to rebuild from scratch. He used this technique on schizophrenics, subjecting them to electroshock “therapy” when their symptoms (inevitably) returned. Disturbingly, even if ethics were a thing back then, and even if someone tried to stop him, Cameron was basically untouchable. He was President of the American Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the American Psychopathological Association, and, from 1961 to 1966, the World Psychiatric Association.

1. Henry Cotton

American psychiatrist Henry Cotton believed “madness” was caused by bacteria. He based this hypothesis solely on some findings from 1913 that the bacteria that causes syphilis also causes psychotic symptoms through brain lesions. Armed with this hypothesis, Cotton set out to prove it—by removing the teeth of 50 of his patients. It didn’t work. So he cut out the tonsils next. Then gallbladders, testicles, ovaries, uteruses, stomachs, and colons. By 1923, he claimed to have cured 85% of his patients’ mental health problems. As for his 30% death rate (or higher among those he took colons from), he excused this by saying they were all psychotics “in whom the infection has been [too] long-standing”.

Horrifyingly, nobody gave their consent. In fact, they made it clear what they thought of Dr Cotton. But he ignored the terrified pleas of his patients and their families, believing only the most ruthless approach would stand a chance of curing insanity. He was proud of it too, touring the world and publishing numerous papers.

In total, he removed more than 11,000 teeth—including, as a preventative measure, the teeth of his wife and children. When he feared he might be losing his own mind, he pulled out some of his own. He died of a heart attack in 1933.

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