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Karl Menninger Dead at 96

July 18, 1990

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Dr. Karl Menninger, who towered over American psychiatry from his Topeka clinic and changed how the nation views the mentally ill and criminals, died today of cancer, four days before his 97th birthday.

Menninger died about 8:15 a.m. at Stormont-Vail Regional Medical Center, said Menninger spokeswoman Judy Craig. He was admitted to the hospital June 12 and diagnosed with abdominal cancer.

Pat Norris, a clinical director of the Biofeedback and Psychophysiology Center at Menninger, said he was ″sending messages and signals to people″ during the night and asked her to sing to him.

Menninger was once hailed by the American Psychiatric Association as the nation’s ″greatest living psychiatrist.″ A forceful, outspoken maverick, he jolted popular thought with his theories on crime, prisons and child abuse.

He was credited with convincing the American public that mental disorders could be treated and cured. And he wrote ″The Crime of Punishment″ in 1968 to argue that ″you don’t rehabilitate a man by beating him.″

The Menninger Clinic, which he founded with his father, is one of the world’s most famous hospitals for the mentally ill. He co-founded the Menninger Foundation, a major nonprofit organization for training, research and public education in psychiatry and psychology. Its name was shortened to just Menninger in 1989.

″My chief purpose in the beginning was to show you could treat ‘insane’ people,″ he said. ″Everybody thought they were untreatable. But I said they were being treated every day. We demonstrated you could treat people in a better way. Our treatment’s success was what made this place.″

Menninger received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1981. The inscription read, in part: ″With the wisdom of his years, he truly does represent the ideas of another generation - the future, rather than the past.″

In December 1976, he underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for removal of a brain tumor. It left a portion of his face paralyzed and his speech slurred. However, he amazed associates by bringing both back to nearly normal through biofeedback and exercise.

In recent years, he went to his office at Menninger daily and spent his time meeting with students, having lunch with friends, receiving guests and sometimes fretting about his place in history.

He took no credit for attaining age milestones: ″I thank God I lived as long as I did. It’s more his doing than mine. And I had good parents, you know.″

Karl Augustus Menninger was born July 22, 1893, in Topeka, the eldest of three sons of Dr. Charles F. Menninger. He considered newspaper work or banking, then decided to join his father in medicine and in 1917 graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School.

He interned in Kansas City and taught briefly at Tufts Medical School. In 1919, after the death of Dr. Ernest Southard of Boston Psychopathic Hospital, ″one of the great inspirations of my life,″ Menninger joined his father’s practice in Topeka.

He soon became what was then called a ″nerve specialist.″ Menninger and his father established their clinic in 1925 because ″I saw you couldn’t do psychiatry alone; you needed others around you.″

In December 1925, his brother, William, returned from New York and joined the clinic in a two-story frame home in west Topeka. The building was designated a national landmark in 1974.

In 1941, the Menningers set up the Menninger Foundation. Karl Menninger served as its president from 1941-43, director of its education department for a time and chief of staff from 1952-1956. He became chairman of the board of trustees in 1954.

Menninger was hot-tempered and excitable, and the force of his personality frequently startled those meeting him for the first time.

″I guess I always have been a bit of a curmudgeon, but I liked things done right,″ he said.

His greatest ambition was to do what he could to help mankind.

″I’ve always believed in amelioration, improving the lot of man,″ he said.

By his own admission, he sometimes ″tilted at windmills,″ especially in his criticisms of the nation’s prison system. Yet, he lived to see prison reform becoming reality, much like the changes that swept through the nation’s mental institutions in the 1940s and 1950s.

Crime and reform dominated his thinking in later years.

He refused to label as criminals those convicted of crimes. He conceded that some ″bad apples″ had to be locked up to protect society, but argued that most of those behind bars had made mistakes they would not repeat if given their freedom.

Menninger frequently testified at legislative hearings, usually in opposition to prison conditions and the death penalty. Menninger moved to Chicago in 1966, serving as a consultant on prison affairs and helping set up a mental health center in downtown Chicago. He moved back to Topeka in 1974.

″Dr. Karl,″ as he was affectionately known around the Menninger Foundation, listed among his proudest accomplishments the establishment of The Villages, homes for wayward youth in Kansas, Indiana and Michigan.

″Nothing I ever did in psychiatry is as joyful to me, as pleasant and rewarding and stimulating, as this idea that by changing the environment the right way, at the right age, you change the life course,″ he said. ″I think we do more good deflecting criminal potentialities than all the jails and lockups and detention homes there are.″

As he grew older, the father of four turned to painting and studying Indian history for relaxation. His other works included ″Sparks,″ ″The Human Mind,″ ″Love Against Hate″ and ″The Vital Balance.″

In ″Whatever Became of Sin?″ he contended that a personal sense of responsibility for moral lapses is necessary to deal with the crippling effects.

Survivors include his second wife, Jeanetta Lyle Menninger, whom he married in 1941; a son, Dr. Robert G. Menninger, a Topeka psychiatrist and official of the Menninger Foundation; and three daughters, Julia Gottesman, Santa Monica, Calif., Martha Nichols, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Rosemary Menninger, Topeka. Also surviving are nine grandchildren.

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