Intended for healthcare professionals


Joseph Berke: counterculture revolutionary

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 11 March 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n690
  1. John Illman
  1. London, UK
  1. john{at}
Photo credit: Family photograph

The American born doctor and psychotherapist Joseph (“Joe”) Berke was a close ally of R D Laing, one of the 20th century’s most controversial psychiatrists. Berke took up a traineeship with Laing, who aspired to lead a revolution in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Laing, a Scot, commandeered a former community centre in east London for his most radical “anti-psychiatry” experiment. The sprawling Kingsley Hall became an asylum in the original Greek meaning of the word: a refuge or safe haven for mentally ill people. Residents were free to come and go as they chose. There were no locks on the doors and no anti-psychotic drugs.

It was no surprise that Laing and Berke got on so well. Berke maintained that the old “Bedlam” system of incarcerating people with mental illness and treating them with anti-psychotic drugs and electroconvulsive therapy exacerbated their suffering. He dismissed pharmaceutical treatments as “chemical restraints,” but had a big appetite for non-prescription drugs. He took lysergide with the one-time Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, an evangelist for the mind expanding potential of psychedelic drugs.

Berke’s first patient at Kingsley Hall was its …

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