Women’s History Month: Pioneers in Mental Health

During this year’s Women’s History Month, we want to honor and reflect on some work of a few pioneering women in the psychology and psychiatry field. These women opened doors for future generations to continue their discoveries and show that women belong in the psychology and psychiatric field.

Margaret Morgan Lawrence

Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence was an accomplished pediatrician and psychiatrist specializing as a psychoanalyst. She spent her career wanting to help children heal, later focusing on children’s mental health. Since she was a child, Dr. Lawrence wanted to be a doctor after her older brother died due to a congenital condition. She wanted to help kids like her brother, so their families did not go through what her parents did. In 1932, Dr. Lawrence attended Cornell University, where she was the only African American undergraduate attending the college at that time. After graduating with near-perfect grades, she applied and was denied admission to Cornell’s School of Medicine. Dr. Lawrence refused to give up on her dream. She was later accepted into Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. While attending there, she was the only African American student in her class and only one of ten women in her class. She was taken under the wing of Dr. Charles Drew. He was the only African American on the faculty staff and the founder of the modern-day blood bank. Dr. Lawrence began her medical career as a pediatrician. She taught at Meharry Medical College, the first medical school in the south for African Americans, and she was the only woman on the medical school’s faculty. In 1947 Dr. Lawrence and her family returned to New York for her ultimate goal of being a psychiatrist. She enrolled at Columbia University’s Columbia Psychoanalytic Center, where she was the first African American student to obtain her psychoanalysis certification. Dr. Lawrence was the first for many things, so here is a list of some of her accomplishments; she was the first African American to complete a residency at the New York Psychiatric Institute. She was the first practicing child psychiatrist in Rockland County, New York. Dr. Lawrence was co-founder of the Rockland County Center for Mental Health in New York. And she was also the first recipient of the Rockland County, New York’s J.R. Bernstein Mental Health Award.

Dr. Lawrence served for 21 years as the Chief of Developmental Psychiatry Services for Infants and Children at Harlem Hospital. She also served as the associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, retiring from both positions and seeing patients in 1984 at the age of 90. Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence accomplished many first not only for women but also for the African American community. Every time Dr. Lawrence was turned away or shut down, she found another opportunity to succeed. While battling racism and sexism, she set a standard and an excellent example for all future doctors and psychiatrists.

Kay Redfield Jamison

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is an American psychologist and a leading authority on bipolar disorder. Most people may not know this, but Dr. Jamison has bipolar disorder. She had her first mental break at 17, where Dr. Jamison said that she was depressed to the point of contemplating suicide. Still, she was able to recover and attend college in the fall. Dr. Jamison went on to earn her bachelor’s in psychology, then completed her Master’s degree in 1971 and went on to get her Ph. D. in 1975, all from UCLA. She is credited with founding the Mood Disorders Clinic at UCLA. When Dr. Jamison was 27 and first hired as an assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry, she suffered another psychotic break. She began having hallucinations and delusions and went into a manic state. Dr. Jamison saw her first psychiatrist shortly after that incident. They diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. She was put on medication to help her manage the symptoms caused by bipolar disorder. Dr. Jamison has found for herself that medication is critical for success in managing bipolar disorder symptoms. She went on to change the world of psychology and psychiatry with her first book, where she disclosed her personal battle with bipolar disorder. After spending the majority of her life teaching on college campus’ Dr. Jamison urges families to talk to each other about their mental health struggles and diagnoses, “I’m amazed how many kids found out about their family history only after they were in the hospital.” Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is not only a leading psychologist in psychotherapy and a massive advocate for normalizing individuals speaking up about their mental health diagnoses, but she knows firsthand the battle that these individuals go through on a daily basis.

Eleanor Maccoby

Dr. Eleanor Maccoby was a psychologist who is probably best known for research on development, sex roles, and child social development. Dr. Maccoby went to the University of Washington to earn her bachelor’s. She then received her Master’s and Ph. D. from the University of Michigan. Dr. Maccoby worked briefly with behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner before she was offered a faculty position at Harvard University by fellow psychologist Dr. Robert Sears. In her early research, she studied the impact of television on children and child-rearing practices. When Dr. Maccoby took a faculty position at Stanford University as a psychology professor, she began to shift her focus on the psychology of sex differences. She found that biological influences were not as impactful as the scientific community initially thought within her work. Dr. Maccoby’s work suggested that social, cultural, and parental influences were the primary determinants of gender roles and preferences. Dr. Maccoby was a co-author on two different textbooks still widely used and studied today. Dr. Maccoby’s other accomplishments and awards were the G. Stanley Hall Award in 1982 and the American Psychology Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. She was also the first woman to serve as chair of the psychology department at Stanford University. She also served as the president of Division 7 of the APA from 1971 to 1972. Eventually, Division 7 of the American Psychological Association would present an award in her name, the Maccoby Award, awarded to psychology authors who make essential contributions in developmental psychology. In one study ranking the 100 most prominent psychologists of the 20th-century, Maccoby is ranked at number 70. Dr. Maccoby paved the way for the future developmental psychologist to create tools to help study children’s development.

Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Packard was an American advocate for women’s rights and people accused of insanity. When she was 19 years old, she was committed to an asylum after she developed “brain fever,” an illness that is characterized by a high fever, headaches, and delirium. After initial treatment failed, her father had her committed to an asylum. After six weeks, she was released and deemed sane. This incident would end up being the beginning of Packard’s mistrust of the medical system. After getting married to a man who was an associate of her father, they had six children and moved to the Midwest. After moving away from New England, Packard questioned the Calvinist faith and teachings. Over time, she began living her life outside of the traditional roles of a wife and mother. Packard began conducting missionary work and would travel on her own. She expressed different religious views to her husband, which upset Mr. Packard and knowing her background of being in an asylum as a teen. He began to imply that her sanity was in question. Divorce was not an option for either spouse, and Elizabeth was especially was concerned about losing her three younger children.

In 1860, Mr. Packard had Elizabeth committed to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane. It was entirely legal for a husband to have his wife committed during this time. Packard remained at the hospital for three years. Finally, in 1863 the doctors at the hospital declared her incurably insane and released her from the institution. Illinois Hospital for the Insane told Packard’s husband that they were making room for individuals who were “curable” patients. But in reality, the hospital staff had grown tired of her resistance and constant calls of release from her grown children. After being released, Packard’s husband imprisoned her at their home, but she was able to get a letter to a friend of hers who brought it before Judge Charles Starr, who immediately wanted Packard brought before him. After going back and forth, Packard was brought before a jury to determine her mental state and whether she was sane. The trial was five days long, and many neighbors and friends testified on her behalf. After only seven minutes of deliberation, the jury found Packard sane. After the trial, Mr. Packard moved back to Massachusetts, leaving Packard homeless, without her children, and with no money. She decided that she would fight for women’s rights and people accused of insanity. Packard was able to change laws in four states regarding the rights of people in asylums. In Illinois, she changed the law so that married women could not have their property taken away from them. She also founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society- campaigning for divorced women to retain custody of their children.

Throughout Packard’s many campaigns during her life, she faced obstacles and opposition. Still, she always continued undaunted towards her ultimate goal. She changed the laws and how women and individuals in asylums were treated and given more rights.

Get In Touch

Compass Health is here to help. Whether you have questions about our services, want to share your feedback or a success story, have a media inquiry, or are seeking more information on a training or job opportunity, contact us today for assistance and support.

Contact Us