Henry, George

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HENRY, George

HENRY, George (b. 13 June 1889; d. 23 May 1964), psychiatrist.

George W. Henry was an American psychiatrist who specialized in the study and treatment of homosexuality. He grew up in Oswego, New York, and received his bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University in 1912 and his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1916. Henry was on the psychiatric staff of New York Hospital from 1918 through 1954 and held a professorship of psychiatry at the Cornell Medical School from 1930 through 1957. Beginning in the 1930s, he also conducted a private practice in New York City and in 1942 his association with New York Hospital became part time.

Henry's first study of homosexuality was published in 1933; using a sample of psychiatric patients, it dealt with the constitutional etiology of homosexuality. The following year he was invited by the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants to become a member and direct a research project on homosexuality. Robert Latou Dickinson, a gynecologist and sex researcher, founded the inter-disciplinary committee in 1935. Henry's former teacher at Johns Hopkins, Adolf Meyer, was one of the committee organizers. The impetus for creating a committee devoted to research on homosexuality stemmed from a study launched by Jan Gay, a lesbian activist-researcher who approached Dickinson so she could obtain the medical sponsorship she needed to publish her work. Gay, whose real name was Helen Reitman (daughter of medical reformer Ben L. Reitman), was a widely traveled writer and language translator who, in the 1920s, visited Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. At the institute, she learned how to conduct a survey on sexuality, which inspired her to carry out an ambitious investigation based on interviewing three hundred lesbians in Berlin, Paris, London, and New York City. At Dickinson's suggestion, Gay agreed to focus her study on a new sample of lesbians in New York City as well as a sample of homosexual men from that city. It was this research project, known as the sex variants study, that Henry was invited to direct.

Gay was employed as Henry's research assistant and was responsible for recruiting the sex variants sample and obtaining personal and family histories. Henry then conducted in-depth interviews, which were actually based on Gay's original set of questions. Over two hundred women and men volunteered to be in the study. From this sample, Henry selected a subset of forty women and forty men to constitute the case studies in his 1941 two-volume Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns. These individuals were selected, according to Henry, because they were especially informative in their interviews. Henry made no reference to Gay's original manuscript and role in conceiving and initiating the research project. Gay's activist legacy, however, lives through the voices of the research participants, which are preserved in the publication of the sex variants monograph. Each case study contains the participant's autobiographical account in his or her own words, followed up by Henry's psychiatric analysis. Despite Henry's conventional template of pathologizing homosexuality, the sex variants monograph reveals the self-determination of LGBT lives as experienced in the 1930s.

Henry's association with the sex variants committee also led to a collaborative relationship with Alfred A. Gross, a gay defrocked Episcopalian priest. As a result of his church dismissal, Gross became a private patient of Henry's in 1937. At Henry's suggestion, Gross agreed to work as his research assistant. Initially sponsored by the sex variants committee, Henry and Gross engaged in a series of research studies on male homosexual sex offenders. Like Gay, Gross recruited and conducted preliminary interviews with the research participants. Gross, however, was more adept than Gay in ensuring that his work with Henry would be acknowledged. In several published articles in the late 1930s and early 1940s Gross received coauthorship.

During World War II, Henry, officially, and Gross, unofficially, played a major role in New York City in screening inductees for homosexuality in the wartime draft. Under Henry's authorization, Gross conducted the screening interviews and thus provided the basis for decisions that disqualified men for military service. Gross's interviews were also aimed at adding to the case history database of Henry's research. When Henry published his popular version of the sex variants monograph in 1955, titled All the Sexes, he incorporated the selective service cases as part of his analysis.

After the war, Henry was approached by a group of Quakers to work with them in organizing a social agency devoted to helping young men arrested on charges of homosexual behavior. In 1946 the Civil Readjustment Committee was established with Henry as chief psychiatrist and Gross as executive secretary. It was Gross who administered the day-to-day operations and conducted the necessary liaisons with the legal and social service system. In 1947 the Quakers withdrew their sponsorship and Gross took the initiative in organizing a new committee in the form of a nonprofit foundation, named the George W. Henry Foundation. Gross's role as the foundation's creator reflected the increasingly dominant position he played in his association with Henry. Henry provided the stamp of authority and the cloak of respectability needed for helping a stigmatized population. Gross continued to function as the executive he had been for the Quaker committee as well as the ghostwriter of many of Henry's official reports. The Henry Foundation generally operated as an effective safety net for young men in legal trouble during the postwar era. Henry continued as chief psychiatrist until his death in 1964. In 1972, with the arrival of the gay liberation movement and Gross's death, the Henry Foundation had outlived its paternalistic function and was dissolved.

Henry's official contribution to the study and treatment of homosexuality masks and distorts the pioneering work of lesbian activist Jan Gay and gay activist Alfred Gross. While Henry espoused the medical model of homosexuality, he should nevertheless be given credit for his consistent call for social tolerance and understanding with regard to homosexuality, a position in contrast with the intemperate and hostile attitudes toward homosexuals often expressed by his fellow psychiatrists.


Bayer, Ronald. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Minton, Henry L. Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Rosario, Vernon A. Homosexuality and Science: A Guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002.

Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Henry L. Minton

see alsomedicine, medicalization, and the medical model; military law and policy; psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and sexology.