British professor lands in American cuckoo's nest

John Carlin (above) hears a brilliant man's tale of a rollercoaster ride into a psychiatric ward - and what he found there

Great wits to madness nearly are allied,

And thin partitions do their bounds divide.

The case of a distinguished British university professor interned against his will in a psychiatric ward in Syracuse, New York, has raised the age- old questions contained in Alexander Pope's felicitous couplet: who's mad, who isn't, and how do you decide?

Dr John Oldfield - 63, born in Wigan - is a retired professor emeritus in electrical engineering. Involved in pioneering work in computer technology since the 1950s, he has run courses for IBM and conducted research at the universities of Edinburgh, Swansea, Cambridge and Cornell. Between 1978, the year he left Britain, and 1993 he held a permanent position at Syracuse University.

Susceptible in recent years to marked mood swings, possibly the consequence of a voraciously inquiring mind, Dr Oldfield has been taking Paxyl, a common anti-depressant drug, for three years. Just over three weeks ago, on 22 November, he experienced an intense feeling of elation during a session with a therapist and his British wife of 36 years, Julienne. The course his life should take, progressively uncertain following his retirement three years ago, suddenly became dazzlingly clear to him.

"It was an epiphany," he said. "I had a sense of a tremendous burden lifting. I was on cloud nine. But the Paxyl, which is supposed to take you out of depression, pushed me up to cloud 12 - into outer space."

He kept flying all weekend. Scribbling notes to himself, working at his computer, full of plans, one of them a project to use computer science to restore damaged stained glass windows in a British church. He was in a frenzy of mental activity, and his wife and friends became alarmed. The following Tuesday he accompanied his wife reluctantly to St Joseph's Hospital for an emergency psychiatric examination. The doctors, guided by the provisions of the New York State mental hygiene code, determined that he should be interned in the hospital's psychiatric ward. He did not want to go. "The hospital says this is ill," he said. "They'd have said the same thing about William Blake."

He was given a room in a secured hospital wing he shared with some 20 mentally ill patients and informed that should he leave the premises he would be arrested. The doctors had diagnosed him as suffering from bipolar disorder, abnormally abrupt transitions from depression to elation. They prescribed lithium.

He refused to take it so long as he remained unjustly detained, as he saw it, in a hospital jail. Challenging the authority and credentials of the doctor who headed the psychiatric ward, he requested a court hearing. He contacted lawyers in Syracuse and England, as well as the Independent on Sunday. His American lawyer, Ken Bobrycki, rapidly determined that the hospital was only empowered to hold him if he were judged to be a danger to himself or to others.

"I believe, having met him, that he's a nice, decent, reputable member of the community," Mr Bobrycki said. "Very accomplished, an authority in his specialty. Men of that ilk tend to be intense by character and that, coupled with the British slant here, well ... He's a resident alien, speaks with a British accent, has an intense way of speaking, a professorial aspect. He would be right to feel some people are holding that against him in this process. In my view it's quite horrific and really amazing that you can be denied your freedom on the justification of doctors. When you see it in a person who is as sane as you or me, it is quite a shock."

On Thursday last week, the 10th day of Dr Oldfield's confinement, he obtained a four-hour pass ("parole", he called it) to leave the hospital. Over coffee at a Syracuse bookshop, talking at a mile a minute but never less than lucidly, he said he had been fascinated by an article he had read in Scientific American, which had compellingly demonstrated that the contemporary medical bias in favour of drugs over psychotherapy to treat depression and other emotional disorders was misplaced.

Research done by, among others, psychiatrists at Syracuse University had shown that in the medium and long term the results of "talking treatment" were at least as successful as those of medication. "I not only refused to take the lithium," Dr Oldfield said, "I've gone off Paxyl for the first time in three years. I haven't even drunk coffee. And you know what? I feel better! Much better!"

Later that evening his wife and two university friends came to visit him at the refectory of the psychiatric ward - a spare, brightly lit, windowless environment of white walls and white linoleum floors. The most striking thing was that he displayed no resentment towards his wife, even though he had identified her as "the prime mover" behind his forced internment. He hugged and kissed her on first greeting. Mrs Oldfield, a placid and sweet-natured lady, said she had not seen him look so well in a while.

He took the opportunity of the 90-minute visiting period to introduce fellow patients - who had not received visitors - to his wife and friends. He behaved in a fatherly way towards them. These manifestly ill, troubled souls deferred to him as if he were a kindly GP. "I am fascinated by the people here," Dr Oldfield said. "I have grown quite fond of them. Some are manifestly not in possession of their senses, some scream and shout, some just gaze into the distance all day."

His wife observed later that his scientist's persona, relentlessly in pursuit of answers to new problems, had retreated into the shadows as he gave himself over to people far more troubled and unfortunate than he. He seemed at peace, as if he had forgotten the outrage he said he felt at the denial of his freedom.

On Friday the doctor in charge of the ward allowed him to return home. He was, as he himself had said, much better. Which was an acknowledgement that he had not been well, that something had happened to him which had merited his wife's concern.

Either way, the conclusion of the article in Scientific American - "Science's grasp of the mind is still rather tenuous" - appeared to have been validated by Dr Oldfield's remarkable experience.

The unintended therapy brought about by continued exposure to those who have seemingly crossed the partition into madness appeared to have had at least as soothing an effect on his heated mind as any drug might have done.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game