By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
How can we improve urban health? That is one of the missions of the New York Academy of Medicine, and a question public health professionals have been asking for decades. One of the landmark urban health studies, Mental Health in the Metropolis: The Midtown Manhattan Study, was published more than half a century ago.1 The study was intended to be a deep and exhaustive look into the mental health of residents in one of the most urban environments in the country, Midtown Manhattan. In many ways it was to be a model of the state of urban health throughout the country.2 And it was shaped by the medical experience of World War II.
Many veterans developed mental illnesses over the course of the war. Dr. Thomas A. C. Rennie, associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College, saw many cases directly. He organized rehabilitation services for veterans during the war, and in 1944 published When He Comes Back and If He Comes Back Nervous.3 This booklet was followed by Mental Health and Modern Society,4 a professional discussion of the effects of war on society. In his war and postwar experience, Rennie encountered many people suffering from mental difficulties, and concluded that the long and extended psychoanalytic approach would never treat them effectively, for lack of time and resources.
Instead, Rennie began to look at the relationship between mental health and the social community.5 In the process he created a new field—social psychiatry. In 1950, he was appointed the first professor of social psychiatry at Cornell, arguably holding the first position of this kind anywhere in the United States.6 He conceived the Midtown study this same year, and launched it in 1952. Upon Rennie’s sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage in mid-1956, the program was continued by Dr. Alexander Leighton, a colleague, medical sociologist, and psychiatrist at Cornell. The study ended in 1960, with publication of its results in 1962.7 It was a large undertaking; overall, the project utilized the services of some 200 people.
What did the study look like? In the words of the lead author, sociologist Leo Srole of SUNY Medical Center Brooklyn (SUNY Downstate), “An investigation focused upon Midtown can, in a special sense, be likened to an intensive case study. Here a community, rather than an individual, is the case.”8 Mental health was investigated as an outcome of community function and dysfunction, as much as or even more so than of the individual. That community was studied along many lines: age, sex, marital status, socioeconomic status, “generation-in-the-U.S.,” and various frames of origination: rural or urban, nationality, and religious affiliation. Researchers also assessed access to and outcomes of mental health and psychiatric care by surveying community residents and treatment workers. Their work seemed to show that Midtown held large numbers of untreated ill individuals, most of whom still functioned at an acceptable level. But definitive results were difficult to come by, and more studies were called for.
Mental Health in the Metropolis was the report of a large and complex analysis, marrying the different disciplines of psychiatry and sociology to understand and address medical problems using social means. As such it was a child of the war—the war that created mass problems, and suggested ways towards solving them. And it was the harbinger of studies to come.
1. Authored by Leo Srole, Thomas S. Langner, Stanley T. Michael, Marvin K. Opler, and Thomas A. C. Rennie, volume 1 in the Thomas A. C. Rennie Series in Social Psychiatry (New York: Blakiston Division, McGraw-Hill, ).
2. Mental Health in the Metropolis, p. 338. The precise boundaries of the study area were not disclosed for reasons of confidentiality; it was described as “more or less midway up the length of Manhattan Island,” bounded by the business district, two major thoroughfares, and a river, and “almost wholly residential in character,” with 175,000 inhabitants (p. 72, and fn 14). Using the name “Midtown” to describe this community was surely inspired by the famous “Middletown” studies of Muncie, Indiana, done by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, and published in 1929 and 1935.
3. With Luther E. Woodward: New York: The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, [c1944].
4. Also with Luther E. Woodward: New York: Commonwealth Fund, 1948.
5. He was not the first to explore this connection, of course, and he profited from his work with Adolf Meyer of The Johns Hopkins Medical School from 1931 to 1941, Oskar Diethelm, “Thomas A. C. Rennie, February 28, 1904 — May 21, 1956,” Cornell University Faculty Memorial Statement, https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/17813, accessed March 18, 2016.
6. Mental Health in the Metropolis, pp. viii.
7. Mental Health in the Metropolis, pp. 336–37.
8. Mental Health in the Metropolis, p. 28.
Media reports of the Midtown Study were rather dramatic, such as the New York Times’s “Study Finds 80% in City District Show Some Mental Disturbance”:
Some archival material on the Midtown Study is found in the Marvin Opler Papers at Columbia University Medical Center’s Archives and Special Collections: