It’s All in the Mind: Pioneer Los Angeles Neurologist and Psychiatrist Henry G. Brainerd (1852-1928)

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930 lends itself to so many possibilities for talking about how much greater Los Angeles transformed over that century.  The population and its demographics, economics, transportation, politics, education, entertainment and so many more areas evolved so remarkably that there almost seems to be no limit to what can be discussed.

One of the areas that may have been more stunning than any other was in the realm of medicine.  In 1830, there was no medical profession to speak of in the region and that did not change much for years.  By century’s end, though, conditions were changing mightily with broad advances in, just as one enormous example, germ theory, or, to take another, hospital hygiene, and, to cite a third, medicines.

First ad The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Mar_27__1887_
Los Angeles Times, 27 March 1887.

Then, there are the amazing transformations in the realm of mental health and tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a notable instance: a press photograph from 1923 of Dr. Henry G. Brainerd, an early practitioner in Los Angeles of the world of neurology.

The photo was utilized, as an inscription on the reverse stated, because Brainerd gave an address to the California Medical Society as its president.  By then, he’d been in the city over thirty-five years and easily was one of the most prominent of its physicians.  The photo seems to show that.

County Physician elect The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Jan_24__1889_
Times, 24 January 1889.

Dressed a crisp and clean dark three-piece suit, albeit with an outdated collar and tie, the 71-year old Brainerd, sporting an immaculate white goatee and seated in an armchair radiates an air of supreme self-possession and total confidence.  To be sure, he had a track record that lent itself well to that impression.

Born in May 1852 in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Henry Greene Brainerd was born with the perfect surname for his life’s work.  He was the son of a Congregationalist minister and had teachers among his siblings.  He moved to Iowa and attended the Iowa College Preparatory School, but returned to his home state to study at Dartmouth College, from where he matriculated in 1874.

Insanirty lecture Los_Angeles_Herald_Fri__Feb_26__1897_.jpg
Los Angeles Herald, 26 February 1897.

He then went back to the Midwest and worked briefly in the Medical Department at Iowa State University before he completed his medical degree at Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1878.  He specialized in mental diseases and insanity, working as assistant physician at the Hospital for the Insane in Independence, Iowa from 1878 to 1886, during which time he conducted post-graduate study in New York and, later, in London.  He was married in 1879 to Alma Loomis and the couple had a daughter, but Alma died in 1882.

As the great Boom of the Eighties was in full swing, Brainerd came west to Los Angeles in early 1887, hanging up his shingle as a sole practitioner and then marrying Fannie Howard later that year in Chicago.  The couple had two sons.  Quickly, the young doctor made his mark in the City of Angels.

USC Dental School address The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Jun_14__1900_
Times, 14 June 1900.

From 1887 to 1892 he was the superintendent of the Los Angeles County Hospital, now the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center.  He joined the faculty of the Los Angeles Medical College, then located north of downtown and affiliated with the University of Southern California in 1887 and was faculty secretary for seven years.

He rose to become the second dean, following Joseph P. Widney (whose brother Robert was a key founder of the Methodist institution) of the university’s medical school, serving in that position from 1896 to 1902.  While there he was instrumental in founding the School of Dentistry, advocating that the field be taken as seriously as other medical disciplines.

Who's Who on the Pacific Coast 1913
Who’s Who on the Pacific Coast, 1913.

Brainerd remained a professor with USC until 1909, upon which he became a neurology professor for the University of California at its “southern branch,” later to become the University of California, Los Angeles.  His leadership positions in industry associations, included the presidency of the state medical society in 1922-23, as noted above, as well as the top position at the Los Angeles County Medical Association; the presidency of the Southern California Medical Society; and serving as the head of the Los Angeles Clinical and Pathological Society.  He was also a member of the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Internal Medicine, the American College of Physicians, and the American Academy of Medicine.

As most disciplines do, the field of neurology has changed greatly with better methods for studying the brain and its activity, though much still remains to be learned, and in Brainerd’s time, the field was just starting to develop.  For instance, in February 1897, the doctor gave a lecture at the Los Angeles Y.M.C.A. on insanity.  He discussed the topic, the Los Angeles Herald reported, “giving illustrations of many of them [types of insanity] from cases arising in his own experiences.”

This press photograph from the Homestead’s collection, with a date stamp of 12 July 1923 shows Brainerd at the end of his long, distinguished career.

The paper then reported that:

The latter part of the lecture was taken up with pertinent suggestions as to the prevention of insanity.  Refraining from alcohol, tobacco and narcotics and from irregularity in sleeping and eating were recommended.  Moderate outdoor exercise daily and an annual vacation were recommended.

He also had to contend, as did his peers, with the difficulties of treating mental illnesses with highly addictive drugs like morphine and cocaine, an issue that still is problematic and troublesome for the world of psychiatry, and he wrote papers and gave addresses on a myriad of topics over his long career.

Obit The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Jul_23__1928_
Times, 23 July 1928.

As the years went on, he was not only considered a paramount local expert in his field, but a world authority, at least according to some sources.  His standing was such that, when the state decided to build a hospital for the mentally ill at Norwalk, Brainerd was the chair of the commission that led the effort and remained to serve on its board of managers.

The life and career of Henry G. Brainerd is reflective of the enormous leaps and bounds made in the field of mental health and the medical profession, locally and broadly, over the course of a career that spanned about a half-century.  His arrival in Los Angeles during the Boom of the 1880s was a fortuitous circumstance as his work developed and grew along with that of his adopted city.

Obit photo The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Jul_23__1928_ (1)
Times, 23 July 1928.

By the time Brainerd died in July 1928, Los Angeles was a major metropolitan area with fine universities, advancing medical schools, and much-improved hospitals and treatment centers.  There was still, as there almost always is, much more work to do to improve the field, but Brainerd played a key role in the development of his field for the forty years he lived and worked in the city.


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