McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry was founded in 1943 and was based at the Allan Memorial Institute (AMI), a centre for teaching, research, and patient care located in a converted mansion on the slopes of Mount Royal. The AMI, under the direction of the Department’s first Chair, Dr. Ewen Cameron, started as a 50-bed hospital, associated with a general hospital, the Royal Victoria Hospital. The year 1946 was an important year. It marked the opening of the first psychiatric day hospital in the world at the AMI, and it was the year that the Douglas Mental Health University Institute (at that time called the Protestant Hospital for the Insane), a large psychiatric hospital with over a thousand inpatients, became affiliated with McGill University.
When the Department opened, it was the only institution in Montreal that was training psychiatrists. In the first year, there were 8 psychiatric residents, but within 20 years this number had increased to 30. From the early years, teaching psychiatry to residents, and subsequently to all McGill medical students, has been a priority in the Department, and over the years many psychiatrists trained at McGill have attained leadership positions elsewhere.
The Department attained an early reputation for excellence in both clinical and basic research. Heinz Lehmann, who joined the Douglas Hospital in 1937, became one of the founding fathers of psychopharmacology. His 1954 paper on chlorpromazine, the first antipsychotic (a term he coined), resulted within a few years in a marked decline in psychiatric inpatient populations. At about the same time, a graduate student in the Department, Andrew Schally, using elegant in vitro experiments, demonstrated the existence of corticotrophin releasing factor (CRH). This was the first demonstration of a hypothalamic hormone regulating pituitary function. Schally subsequently moved to the United States to continue the same line of research and in 1977 received the Nobel Prize for his work in isolating hypothalamic releasing factors. In the early 1960s, basic research on dopamine by Theodore Sourkes led to one of the first tests of DOPA as a treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Research in the department was not just limited to biological psychiatry. In 1955, Eric Wittkower set up the section of Transcultural Psychiatric Studies, now the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, which has flourished and is currently engaged in teaching, research and clinical work.
The strengths the Department developed in its early years in clinical psychopharmacology, in basic research in neurotransmitters, and in transcultural psychiatry, have been augmented more recently with active programs in psychotherapy research, substance abuse research, psychoneuroendocrinology, psychoimmunology, developmental aspects of behavior, genetics, epigenetics as well as the study of the brain through a variety of brain scanning techniques. In addition to its role in teaching psychiatry, the Department has become an important centre for the training of both basic and clinical psychiatric researchers.
The Department maintains the tradition, forged in its early years, of striving for excellence in, and interaction between, its roles in research, teaching and clinical work.