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Bailey, Harry Richard (1922–1985)

by Stephen Garton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Harry Richard Bailey (1922-1985), psychiatrist, was born on 29 October 1922 at Picton, New South Wales, eldest child of Jack Nelson Bailey, railway night officer and later stationmaster, and his wife Ruth Kathleen, née Smith, both born in New South Wales. Educated at a Christian Brothers’ college at Waverley, Sydney, Harry enrolled in science at the University of Sydney in 1940. Lacking money, he did not finish the course and found work as a pharmacist’s assistant. On 19 January 1945 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Marjorie Jocelyn Noonan, a cashier. He studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1951; DPM, 1954), winning the Norton Manning memorial prize for psychiatry and the Major Ian Vickery prize for paediatrics.

Psychiatry, then an unpopular specialisation, afforded opportunities for advancement for a bright, ambitious graduate from a modest social background. After twelve months at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Bailey became a medical officer at Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic, Leichhardt, in 1952. That year he was appointed assistant-director of psychiatric clinical services in the Department of Public Health. He had already come under the influence of such prominent advocates of surgical and pharmacological treatments for mental illness as (Sir) William Trethowan and Cedric Swanton. From December 1954 he spent fifteen months on a World Health Organisation fellowship in the United States of America and Europe, closely observing the sedation techniques, psychosurgery and electroconvulsive therapy methods of Ewan Cameron in Canada, William Sargant in London and Lars Leksell in Sweden. On his recommendation, the Cerebral Surgery and Research Unit at Callan Park Mental Hospital was established in 1957. Bailey was named director. There he experimented with new ECT and psychosurgical methods, announcing significant developments in the successful treatment of mental illness.

His reputation high, in 1959 Bailey was appointed medical superintendent of Callan Park, a large institution suffering from years of neglect and a culture of confinement. He proved to be an impatient reformer. Within a few months he submitted a report to the Public Service Board with detailed allegations of staff cruelty, patient neglect and daily pilffering from hospital stores. Subsequent police and Department of Public Health investigations found nothing to substantiate the charges. Undeterred, Bailey `blew the whistle’, and dramatic newspaper headlines embarrassed the Heffron government, particularly the responsible minister, William Sheahan. The resulting royal commission report into Callan Park by John McClemens confirmed many of Bailey’s allegations, while concluding that some were exaggerated. Laying partial blame on inadequate funding, it also noted `problems of leadership’ at the hospital. The findings forced future governments to take mental health policy more seriously but relations between Bailey and Sheahan were irrevocably damaged, leading to Bailey’s resignation in September 1961 amid protests by members of the press and parliamentary Opposition.

Bailey moved to private practice in Macquarie Street. His high public profile ensured his success. He became a psychiatric consultant at Wollongong, Canterbury, Eastern Suburbs and Crown Street hospitals. A member of the Australian Medical Association (1951), the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists (later Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists) from 1952, the American Electroshock Research Association and the Pan-Pacific Surgical Association, he was president of the Sydney Biophysics and Medical Electronics Society.

In 1963 Bailey, with John Herron, and later Ian Gardiner and John Gill, began to treat patients at Chelmsford Private Hospital, Pennant Hills. There Bailey experimented with the combination of extended narcotic induced comas (deep sleep therapy) and ECT. Complications such as pneumonia, infections, dehydration, vomiting and respiratory problems were common. Within two years five patients had died as a result of this treatment. More deaths followed, although it was not until 1967 that a coronial inquest resulted. Impressed by Bailey’s medical reputation and his justification for his therapeutic regime, the coroner did not consider him culpable. Apart from private mutterings in psychiatric circles and occasional published criticisms of Bailey’s research, there were few efforts by the profession to control his methods. He continued to publish research papers on psychosurgery with reputable psychiatrists such as Cedric Swanton and John Dowling. By 1979, when Bailey’s Chelmsford practice closed, at least twenty-four patients had died, others had committed suicide and many survivors suffered physical and mental complications arising from their treatment.

The veil of professional repute that protected Bailey began to unravel. From 1972 a Chelmsford nurse, Rosa Nicholson, documented treatment irregularities; she passed this evidence to the Citizens Committee on Human Rights, a branch of the controversial Church of Scientology. In 1978 the committee wrote to the attorney-general detailing the evidence of medical malpractice, and newspapers began to report their allegations. That year the suicide of the dancer Sharon Hamilton, a patient and lover of Bailey, and revelations that he was the beneficiary of her estate, further undermined his reputation.

In 1980 the influential current affairs program `60 Minutes’ aired an episode on Chelmsford, containing details of the death of Miriam Podio in 1977. Five years later a coronial inquest into her death was held and in 1983 Bailey was charged with manslaughter. Although the charge was dismissed in 1985, the media siege was intense. Sick, tired, dispirited and facing years of litigation, on 8 September 1985 he drove to Mount White and parked on an isolated track. Next day police found him dead, the cause of death being barbiturate poisoning. Survived by his estranged wife and two adopted daughters, he was cremated.

A well-dressed, handsome and cherub-faced charmer, Bailey was charismatic, despite occasional drunken rages. A noted bon vivant, he was prone to exaggerating his achievements. Although he lapsed into periods of deep gloom, salved by drink and medication, he continued to assert that his methods were efficacious. He saw himself as a martyr, hounded by religious fanatics and ignorant critics. Bailey revelled in the trappings of professional power and exploited the vulnerabilities of those in his care, having sexual relationships with a number of female patients and some employees. Even when embroiled in controversy, he still managed to command intense loyalty and affection from his wife, former lovers and some close colleagues.

In 1988 the Greiner government established a royal commission into deep sleep therapy. The commissioner concluded that events at Chelmsford were deplorable, and found evidence of fraud, obstruction of justice and serious medical negligence. He condemned all the doctors involved but concluded that Bailey was central and that without him there would have been no deep sleep therapy. The New South Wales parliament banned the treatment and enacted stricter regulations governing the admission and treatment of mental health patients. For all the wrong reasons Bailey had again forced governments to improve the lot of the mentally ill.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Royal Commission into Deep Sleep Therapy (1990)
  • B. Bromberger and J. Fife-Yeomans, Deep Sleep (1991)
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol 27, no 1, 1993, p 140
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Sept 1961, pp 1 and 2, 12 Sept 1961, p 1, 8 July 1978, p 5, 14 Sept 1985, p1.

Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'Bailey, Harry Richard (1922–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bailey-harry-richard-12162/text21793, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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