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Biography: John P. Gray

John P. Gray, M.D. (1825–1886): Psychiatric Leader

John P. Gray was a formidable leader in forensic American psychiatry during the second half of the 19th century. He often served as a forensic psychiatrist and was the editor of The AJI for 32 years where he had a ready avenue to express his views. He was President of The Superintendents’ Association from 1883 to 1884.

Gray was born in Halfmoon, Pennsylvania, attended Dickinson College as an undergraduate, and received his medical training at The University of Pennsylvania in 1848. He was a resident at the public Blockley Asylum in Philadelphia and later taught at the medical school. In 1850, he moved to the Utica (NY) State Hospital as a junior physician and became Hospital Superintendent in 1854, remaining in this post until his death.

Gray was a strong believer that mental illness was due to physical causes that could be found in the brain, as opposed to the long-standing belief that mental illness was due to 'moral' causes. In 1870, Gray added a pathologist to his staff in Utica, the first American asylum to do so.

In 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau. Brought to trial, the major question was whether Guiteau was sane or insane (which would avoid the death penalty). The prosecution and defense each assembled prominent psychiatrists and neurologists to testify on their points. Gray was a major and strong witness for the prosecution that Guiteau was sane. Guiteau was hanged, but many later psychiatrists believed he was insane.

Gray himself was shot by a mentally ill person soon after the Guiteau trial and later succumbed to his wounds.