Healy, William (1869–1963)

William Healy can be credited with bringing the interpretative framework of psychology to the JUVENILE JUSTICE system, with designing the institutional structure for the practice of clinical child psychiatry and psychology, and with popularizing psychological interpretations of youthful mis-conduct through his clinics, writings, and public appearances. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the early twentieth century who blamed poor heredity and mental RETARDATION for juvenile crime and called for institutionalization, Healy argued for the intellectual and psychological normality of delinquents and made a strong case for the efficacy of psychological intervention strategies.

A physician by training, Healy began his work with delinquents in 1909 when he was employed by a group of Chicago reformers to direct the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute. These reformers, having inaugurated the JUVENILE COURT movement ten years earlier, wanted Healy to provide the new court with assessments of troublesome repeat offenders. At the same time, he was expected to use these cases to develop a general understanding of juvenile crime. Healy's results were published in 1915 as The Individual Delinquent, a compendium of social and environmental, psychological, and medical characteristics found in the youths he evaluated. Healy rejected unidimensional theories of causation, arguing instead for an eclectic approach. The task for the court and the clinic, he believed, was to determine the unique combination of factors that shaped each delinquent's individual personality. This profile could be deduced only through a thorough investigation of the delinquents and their families by a team of medical, psychological, and social-work professionals. As established by Healy, the process included efforts to elicit the child's "own story" (Healy's phrase for the psychiatrist's contribution to the evaluation).

Healy's views on DELINQUENCY as laid out in The Individual Delinquent were heavily influenced by the adolescent psychology of G. STANLEY HALL, the preventive mental hygiene programs of the psychiatrist Adolph Meyer, and the environmentalism of Progressive-era reformers. Increasingly, however, Healy was drawn to explanations of human behavior found in the works of SIGMUND FREUD. By applying psychoanalytic concepts of repression and the unconscious, Healy came to identify "mental conflicts" as the cause of much delinquency and adolescent misconduct. Like Freud, Healy was convinced that issues related to SEXUALITY usually caused these adolescent conflicts, and Healy's work helped to fortify the SEX EDUCATION movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Also like Freud, Healy located the source of personality and delinquency in family dynamics and in particular in the child's relationship with his or her mother. Healy's concurrence helped to give validity to the mother-blaming psychology that consumed child psychiatry after the 1930s.

In 1917 Healy became director of the Judge Baker Foundation of Boston, where he remained until retiring in 1947. Healy's clinic was originally designed to provide assessments of delinquents brought before the Boston juvenile court. By the 1930s the clinic evaluated and treated children from all walks of life who were experiencing a broad range of emotional or behavioral problems. In 1922, when the Commonwealth Fund, a wealthy private philanthropy interested in juvenile justice programs and research in child development, offered to support the establishment of a network of court-affiliated CHILD GUIDANCE clinics, Healy's Judge Baker Foundation served as the working model. At first these child guidance clinics were solely for delinquents, but during the 1920s the clientele came to include other troublesome youths–in trouble at school or difficult to live with at home, for example. During the 1920s and 1930s the parents of these nondelinquent adolescents learned about the teachings of child guidance through child-rearing manuals, popular magazines, and government publications, and William Healy contributed to all these venues.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Child Psychology.


Healy, William. 1915. The Individual Delinquent: A Text-Book of Diagnosis and Prognosis for All Concerned in Understanding Offenders. Boston: Little, Brown.

Healy, William. 1917. Mental Conflicts and Misconduct. Boston: Little, Brown.

Healy, William, and Franz Alexander. 1935. Roots of Crime: Psychoanalytic Studies. New York: Knopf.

Healy, William, and Augusta Bronner. 1926. Delinquents and Criminals, Their Making and Unmaking: Studies in Two American Cities. New York: Macmillan.

Healy, William, and Augusta Bronner. 1936. New Light on Delinquency and Its Treatment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Institute of Human Relations.

Jones, Kathleen W. 1999. Taming the Troublesome Child: American Families, Child Guidance, and the Limits of Psychiatric Authority. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schneider, Eric C. 1992. In the Web of Class: Delinquents and Reformers in Boston, 1810s–1930s. New York: New York University Press.

Snodgrass, Jon. 1984. "William Healy (1869–1963): Pioneer Child Psychiatrist and Criminologist." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 20:331–339.