Great moments in mentally ill history: Frederick Law Olmsted

Have you ever seen the Comedy Central show Drunk History? I love it. The show takes little known tidbits of American history, and makes them both informative and entertaining.

The show has inspired me to create this new “series” on my blog. Occasionally, I’ll present entertaining or inspiring stories about famous people who were mentally ill. I’m not talking about criminals and mass murderers. For too long, they’ve been the faces of mental illness. I’m focusing on people who have done great things. I’ve already written about Winston Churchill, Vincent van Gogh, Robin Williams, and Shawn Colvin, to name a few. Theoretically, they were my first series subjects.

But my first official subject is Frederick Law Olmsted, probably the most accomplished landscape architect who Olmstedever lived. Think New York’s Central Park. Think Boston’s Emerald Necklace of connected parks and landscapes. He designed these landmarks, and so much more. He was brilliant–AND prone to bouts of what was believed to be post traumatic stress disorder.

Olmsted helped design the grounds what is now McLean Hospital, one of the world’s most respected psychiatric hospitals. He also became a patient at McLean, spending the last years of his life there. As one famous story goes, he was feeling quite down one day. A family member asked him what was wrong. Was it his mood? His treatment? No. “They didn’t follow my plan for this place,” Olmsted growled.  “CONFOUND THEM!” Talk about an exacting man.

But look at what he created–all this beauty and eternal calm that has been enjoyed by countless millions. We wouldn’t have them were it not for a brilliant, gifted, mentally ill man–the one and only Frederick Law Olmsted.

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