From Journalist to Crusader: Exposing the "Snake Pits" in Oklahoma and Beyond, 1946-1953

When Gorman received his U.S. Army discharge in 1945, he elected to stay in Oklahoma (his last military posting), and got a job reporting for the Daily Oklahoman. He was initially assigned to the city hall and police stories. In July 1946 his editor asked him to look into a reader's complaint about conditions at Central State psychiatric hospital. What Gorman found there appalled and sickened him: neglected, barely clothed inmates (some of whom had been there for decades) crowded together in filthy, dilapidated buildings; underpaid, overworked, and poorly trained attendants, and few physicians or nurses. He asked the editor if he could return with a photographer (preferably one with a strong stomach, he said), and then go on to visit the other state institutions for the mentally ill and retarded. The resulting series of articles not only chronicled the terrible conditions at the various hospitals, but explained why such conditions existed: traditionally, Gorman said, Americans preferred to keep mental hospital patients out of sight and out of mind. No one, including legislators, gave much thought to those suffering from mental illness, for their problems carried the stigma of incurable insanity. Psychiatric theory and treatment approaches had changed greatly since 1900, Gorman explained, but state mental hospital inmates rarely received any sort of therapy; there were nowhere near enough medical staff to provide it. The mentally ill had few advocates, and superintendents of psychiatric hospitals asked state legislatures for bigger annual budgets in vain.

Hundreds of Daily Oklahoman readers, shocked and outraged by Gorman's reports, sent letters to the paper's editor. The strong public response demanded some kind of further action. Gorman found himself--reluctantly at first--setting up a state mental hygiene association which would both educate the public about the desperate need for better psychiatric facilities and personnel, and raise money to lobby the state legislature for increased funding to remedy the problems. Gorman's editor and the publisher of the Daily Oklahoman supported him in these efforts. When the legislature met again in early December 1946, a special state senate investigating committee visited Central State Hospital and saw that Gorman had not exaggerated. From December 1946 to May 1947, the Oklahoma state legislature considered bills to reform the state mental hospital system. These included large appropriations for new buildings and more professional staff, new commitment laws, and a new administrative structure unconnected to state political patronage systems. At several points, opponents attempted to slash budgets or attach limiting amendments to the proposed legislation. To block such efforts, Gorman and his associates quickly learned to use civic and professional associations and the press to mobilize public opinion and apply pressure to the politicians. The mental health bill finally passed, largely intact, on the last day of the session. Several years later, Gorman's chronicle of this experience (originally intended to be a book) was published in condensed form in Reader's Digest. During his four years in Oklahoma, Gorman wrote over four hundred stories and sixty editorials about the state of mental health care. His newspaper series was reprinted as a pamphlet for distribution by mental hygiene associations across the nation.

Curious about whether Oklahoma's situation was typical, Gorman investigated public and private psychiatric facilities in neighboring states during 1947 and 1948. They varied widely in quality; several in Colorado and Kansas (including the Veteran's Administration hospital headed by innovative psychiatrist Karl Menninger) demonstrated how such facilities could function as true places of healing and not just warehouses for unwanted mental patients. Gorman's work attracted considerable attention. He received a Lasker Award in 1948 "for Public Information Leading to Public Action in Mental Health." He was also chosen by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of ten outstanding young American men for 1948.

In the course of these investigations, Gorman gradually became acquainted with a wide range of mental health professionals, state and local citizens' mental health groups, state governors, and key state and federal legislators. Two health policy activists, Mary Lasker and Florence Mahoney, would prove pivotal to his career. When Mahoney, wife of Miami Daily News publisher Dan Mahoney, heard of Gorman's investigations, she invited him to do a series of articles on psychiatric facilities in Florida. He found conditions in Chattahoochee, the state mental hospital, worse than anything he had yet seen. This began a long association with Mahoney and her friend, philanthropist Mary Lasker, who were becoming increasingly involved in health care policy reform.

Gorman left the Daily Oklahoman in March 1949, and worked as a free-lance reporter for several years in Los Angeles. In 1951, on the recommendation of Lasker and Mahoney, he was invited to join President Truman's Commission on the Health Needs of the Nation. Truman had been trying to get national health insurance back on the federal agenda, but had encountered strenuous resistance from the American Medical Association. He asked the Commission on Health Needs to study the whole national picture--long range health conditions and needs of postwar population, adequacy of health care personnel, supplies, insurance, financing of care, and medical research--and make recommendations. Gorman served as chair until 1953, and wrote the commission's final report, released in December 1952. The report emphasized that greater federal funding for health research would be one of the best ways to improve the human condition. In the process, Gorman adopted the British "White Paper" approach that he would use for the rest of his career: develop and document the facts, involve many groups not previously interested in the problem, create a broad supportive consensus, and then, armed with facts and recommendations, approach the legislators and request that they address the problem. Unfortunately, though Truman was very pleased with the commission's work, the report received very little attention when released, and even less from the incoming Republican administration in 1953. But the information gathered and compiled by the commission would be a resource for later advocates of public health programs.