Orr, Douglass Winnett M.D. (1905-1990)

  • By Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D.
  • Posted 3/03/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10323

Douglass Winnett Orr helped found Seattle's Northwest Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology and the Blakeley Psychiatric Group in the 1940s. He was the founder, with Edith Buxbaum (1902-1982), of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and served as its first director. He worked to help establish Seattle's Pinel Psychiatric Hospital, which was in operation from 1948 to 1958. While in Seattle, he became a charter member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and Society; after leaving Seattle in 1965, he helped found the San Diego Psychoanalytic Institute and Society and helped to build the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute. Orr was a member of the King County Medical Society from 1941 to 1967. He died from cancer in 1990 while he and his wife were living in a retirement village near Santa Rosa, California.

Early Life

Douglass Winnett Orr was born on August, 29, 1905, in Lincoln, Nebraska, one of five children of Hiram Winnett Orr (1877-1956), an orthopedic surgeon, and Grace Douglass (1882-1962), a physical-training teacher. His domestic environment included music, books, religion, and a renowned book-collecting father who wrote medical texts and invented an orthopedic procedure called the "Orr treatment." The son had much to live up to. His mother was active in the Congregational church and the Camp Fire Girls. She wrote A Layman's Guide to Ecumenicity, which was published in 1956 by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Orr grew up with four siblings: Ridlon Willard Orr (1908-1967); Martha Josephine Orr Danielson (1910-1996); Dorothy Grace Orr Klein (1913-1991); and Gwenith Greene Orr Sheldon (1919- 2009).

Douglass Orr graduated from Lincoln High School in Nebraska on June 1, 1923, and was awarded the Senior Prize for achievement. According to Orr's daughter, Nancy Orr Adams (b. 1941), her father's family attended church every Sunday, and the children went to weekly Sunday school. When Douglass became an adult he wanted nothing to do with religion; he and his wife would raise their children in a secular environment. He would also rebel against his father's pressure for him to study orthopedic medicine.

Higher Education

Orr attended the University of Nebraska from 1923 to 1926, where he studied the Greek classics and English. He transferred to Swarthmore College, from which he received his undergraduate degree in 1928. There, he was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity and Phi Beta Kappa. Upon graduation, he taught English and philosophy at the short-lived (1927-1932) Experimental College in Madison, Wisconsin, established by progressive educator Alexander Meiklejohn (1872-1964). Orr would retain his lifelong fondness for the humanities. One summer while in England he developed an interest in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. Although he gave up on the idea of getting a Ph.D. in English, his work on Woolf was rewarded in 2004 when two of his texts on the subject were published posthumously.

In 1931 Orr married social worker Jean Walker (1907-1998), whom he met in Madison. He enrolled in medical school at Northwestern University's school of medicine and earned his medical degree in 1935. Soon after, he went to England on a Barnett Fellowship, where he and his wife wrote Health Insurance with Medical Care: The British Experience. The couple had two children, Stephen Winnett Orr (b. 1940) and Nancy Orr Adams (b. 1941). 

According to Nancy Orr Adams, Orr was determined not to follow in his father's footsteps by specializing in orthopedic medicine; despite his father's disappointment, Orr became a psychiatrist. He went to Chicago to train as a psychoanalyst and to enter into analysis with N. Lionel Blitzsten (1893-1952), the first training analyst in Chicago and the first president of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society, formed in 1931.

At the Menninger

From Chicago, Orr took a position with the Menninger Clinic, an inpatient psychiatric facility in Topeka, Kansas. There he worked as a psychiatrist and as a psychoanalyst. He also taught classes in the psychiatric aspects of social work. The New York Times described the Menninger Method of Treatment as follows:

"Previously, psychiatric treatment had been conducted one on one over a long period -- perhaps five to seven years. The Menninger idea was to provide a 'total environment' for its clinic patients in which there would be a family atmosphere, physical exercise and medical doctors from various disciplines who could give patients comprehensive care" (The New York Times).

Orr would bring his experience with the controversial Menninger Method to Seattle, where he would attempt to implement some of its practices, most notably at the Pinel Clinic where, according to The New York Times, they "used interesting new therapies like psychodrama."

At the Menninger Clinic, Orr worked closely with Chicago-trained analyst Karl Menninger (1893-1990). While in Topeka, Orr also met colleagues he would later bring to Seattle to build its psychoanalytic community. In 1940 he became a life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a training-analyst member of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

To Seattle

In July 1941, Orr and his family moved to Seattle, where he established a practice in psychiatric medicine. Ernst Simmel, M.D. (1882-1947), an émigré analyst practicing in Los Angeles, who was a pioneer in the field of war neuroses, wrote to Orr:

"I personally, have no doubt that you are the right man to become the primeval father of the psychoanalytic tribe in Washington" (Orr, "Psychoanalytic Beginnings").

Several years hence, Orr would contribute his essay, "Anti-Semitism and the Psychopathology of Everyday Life," to Anti-Semitism: A Social Disease, a text that Dr. Simmel would edit.

No sooner had Orr settled with his family in Seattle than America entered World War II. From 1942 to 1946 he was on active duty in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. Here he practiced psychiatry, as one friend said, "over the railing of a ship" and became an expert on war neuroses, developing an 11-page handout that was widely distributed by the Red Cross ("Seattle Area Loses Two Top Citizens ... ").

The Northwest Clinic

After discharge from the Navy as a lieutenant commander, in July 1946 Orr  went into joint practice with several other psychiatrists to found the Northwest Clinic. These included Lester Henderson, M.D., Edward D. Hoedemaker, M.D. (1904-1969 ) and Robert L. Worthington, M.D. Later Eugene G. Goforth, M.D., (1912-1996) would join the partnership. This joint venture was the foundation for the development of psychoanalysis in Seattle. But in order to practice psychoanalysis, according to the rules of the American Psychoanalytic Association, doctors of medicine had to become training analysts before they could establish a psychoanalytic institute. Moreover, two training analysts were needed in a city before a psychoanalytic institute could begin functioning. Douglass Orr was the only one of his Northwest Clinic colleagues to have been anointed as a training analyst by the American Psychoanalytic Association. He needed to recruit one more analyst with a training background before a Seattle institute could get off the ground. That recruit was the lay analyst Edith Buxbaum, Ph.D. (1902-1982).

In hiring Buxbaum, Orr not only found a place for lay psychoanalysis in Seattle, but also brought a female, as well as a Jewish, component into the emerging psychoanalytic community. "Lay analysis" denotes that the practitioner does not have a medical degree. Buxbaum, who trained with Anna Freud (1895-1982) in Vienna, was a teacher and a training analyst with a doctorate in history. By 1938, the American Psychoanalytic Association had been usurped by the American medical establishment and Buxbaum, who came to the United States from Vienna in 1938, was grandfathered or "waivered" in, as were such luminaries as Anna Freud and Erik Erikson (1902-1994).

As part of his psychiatric practice at the Northwest Clinic, Orr served as a psychiatric consultant to Seattle's Children's Hospital, the Veterans Administration Hospital, and social-service agencies, including the Family Society of Seattle and Ryther Child Center. He taught in the University of Washington's graduate school of social work and helped build the nonprofit Pinel Foundation Hospital in Lake Forest Park at 2318 Ballinger Way. This was a 30-bed private psychiatric hospital "emphasizing individual-centered treatment and psychotherapy rather than custodial care." Pinel was named after Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), the French psychiatrist known for unchaining mentally ill patients imprisoned in what were then called insane asylums.

Orr was instrumental in bringing other medical personnel to Seattle as, for instance, Garland Lewis (1913-2002), a nurse who had worked at the Menninger Clinic from 1934 to 1942 before joining the Pinel staff. Orr also brought along his secretary, Dorothy Vining (1916-1978), as well as a strong contingent of Topeka colleagues. They shared office space and a lunch table, held study sessions together, became friends, and went into analysis with each other. Moreover, it was not unusual for a colleague to analyze another colleague's spouse or supervisee, and then all go to the same social function together. There was little to keep this incestuous practice at bay until more analysts arrived in Seattle.

By then, and at least by the 1970s, psychoanalysis was no longer in its heyday. Various psychotherapies overstepped psychoanalysis while building on its tenets, creating a homogenization of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. But by that time, Orr was gone from Seattle.

On to La Jolla

By 1965 the Orrs had been in Seattle for 25 years and had had a large influence in the community, but they were now ready to move to a sunnier climate. In July of that year, with their children grown, they moved to LaJolla, California. Orr continued practicing psychoanalysis and psychiatry. He was an active member of the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society, having been elected a member of its Joint Committee for the Development of Psychoanalytic Training, and he was instrumental in its accreditation by the American Psychoanalytic Association, first in 1973, and then as a full training institute in 1977.

In addition to writing papers for professional journals and conferences, during these years Orr completed a project he and his wife had begun in England during the 1930s. His paper "Psychoanalysis and the Bloomsbury Group" was delivered to the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society on April 21, 1978, and he completed his book Virginia Woolf's Illnesses in 1968. In 2004, with the help of Nancy Orr Adams, Wayne K. Chapman of Clemson University Digital Press published both works. Each reflects Orr's lifelong interest in the Humanities.

In an email to this writer, Nancy Orr Adams quotes a 1976 letter her dad wrote to family and friends:

"Jean and I are well settled into condominium life. I work from 8:30 to 11:30, and come home. We both swim and have lunch unless Jean has other plans and I eat solo ... . I am in the office again from 1:30 to 5:30 (sometimes 6:30) and then home for dinner and usually a walk along the beach" (Nancy Orr Adams).

Adams writes that her parents "moved from their home in La Jolla to a lovely penthouse unit in a condo complex on La Jolla Shores Drive" (Email, Nancy Orr Adams).

Douglass Winnett Orr died in Sonoma, California, on August 28, 1990, after battling cancer and a series of strokes. His death came one day before his 85th birthday. His son, Steve, scattered his ashes off Tide Point on Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands. Eight years later the family would scatter his wife's ashes in the same place.


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Allison, M.D., "The Shortage of Psychoanalytic Patients: An Inquiry into Its Causes and Consequences," Psychoanalytic Inquiry: A Topical Journal for Mental Health Professionals, Vol. 20, No. 4 (2000), pp 527-540; "Balanton Condo: What Was There Before," Ballinger Creek website accessed January 16, 2012 (http://www.ballingercreek.org/Balaton.html); Daniel Benveniste, "The Early History of Psychoanalysis in San Francisco," Psychoanalysis and History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (July 2006); Carol Beers, "Arthur Kobler Was Psychologist And Longtime Civil-Rights Activist," The Seattle Times, March 7, 1999 (http://seattletimes.com); Washington's Hospitals: A Century of Service, 1858-1958, ed. by John Bigelow (Seattle: Washington State Hospital Association, 1958); Cynthia Stokes Brown, "The Experimental College Revisited," Wisconsin Magazine Of History, Vol. 66, No. 2 (1982-1983); Esther Altshul Helfgott interview with George Allison, M.D., August 22, 1994, Seattle; Esther Altshul Helfgott interview with with Lawrence Schwartz, M.D., December 8, 1993, Seattle; Nancy Orr Adams, emails to Esther Altshul Helfgott, October 2012-February 2013, in possession of Esther Altshul Helfgott, Seattle; "Campus Greets New Student Generation," The Wisconsin, Vol. 30, No. 1 (October 1928), available at (http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/UW/UW-idx?type=turn&entity=UW.v30i1.p0005&id=UW.v30i1&isize=M); Laurie Fish, "Seattle Area Loses Two Top Citizens in Douglass Orrs," The Seattle Times, January 10, 1965, p. 11; "Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis," Answers.com website accessed January 28, 2012 (http://www.answers.com/topic/chicago-institute-for-psychoanalysis); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Buxbaum, Edith (1902-1982), Psychoanalyst" (by Esther Altshul Helfgott) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 8, 2013); Alfred Manes, "Review: Douglas W. 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Orr, "Group Psychiatric and Psychoanalytic Practice," unpublished paper, n.d., in possession of Esther Altshul Helfgott, Seattle, courtesy Nancy Orr Adams; Douglass W. Orr, "Technic and Practice of Psychoanalysis," Arch NeurPsych, Vol. 81, No. 2 (1959), pp. 264-265; Douglass W. Orr, "Anti-Semitism and the Psychopathology of Everyday Life," in Anti-Semitism: A Social Disease, ed. by Ernst Simmel, M.D. (New York: International Universities Press, 1946), 85-95; Douglass W. Orr, "Psychoanalytic Reminiscences," Journal of the Council for the Advancement of Psychoanalytic Education, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1981), pp. 26-32; "The Psychoanalytic Forum," Psychiatric Research Foundation, Vol. 4 (Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press, 1972), 135; Douglass W. Orr, "Review of Rorty, James: American Medicine Mobilizes," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 205, No. 1, p. 145; Douglass W. Orr, "Psychoanalysis and the Bloomsbury Group," unpublished paper delivered to the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society, April 21, 1978, courtesy Nancy Orr Adams, in possession of Esther Altshul Helfgott, Seattle; Douglass W. Orr, M.D., Virginia Woolf's Illnesses, Clemson University Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing website accessed January 14, 2013 (http://www.clemson.edu/caah/cedp/cudp/pubs/orr/main.htm); Douglass W. Orr, "Psychoanalysis and the Bloomsbury Group," Clemson University Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing website accessed January 14, 2013  (http://www.clemson.edu/cedp/cudp/scr/woolf/Orr_Bloomsbury.pdf); Susan Koch, "Dr. H. Winnett Orr: 1877-1956," Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, March-April (1957), pp. 1- 4; "Pinel Foundation, Inc. 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Wallerstein, "San Francisco Psychoanalytic Society and Institute," International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ed. by Alain de Mijolla, Vol. 3; "The Mental Health Professions: Conceptualization and Reconceptualization of a New Discipline," International Review of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 5, pp. 377-392; Grace Douglass Orr Papers, Grinnell College Libraries Special Collections website accessed January 14, 2013 (https://libweb.grinnell.edu/archives/?p=collections/findingaid&id=109&q=&rootcontentid=7044); "A Catalogue of the H. Winnett Orr Historical Collection and other Rare Books in the Library of the American College of Surgeons, Chicago, 1960," American College of Surgeons website accessed January 14, 2012 (http://www.facs.org/archives/orr.pdf).
Note: This essay was corrected on June 15, 2017, as to the dates that the Pinel hospital operated.

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