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Historic View of the Austen Riggs Center

Highlights from Riggs History and Some Notable Staff Members

  • The Austen Riggs Center is incorporated on July 21, 1919, by Austen Fox Riggs, MD, as the “Stockbridge Institute for the Study and Treatment of Psychoneuroses,” a “nonprofit, voluntary institution.” It is later renamed the Austen Riggs Center
  • Dr. Riggs serves as Medical Director until his death in 1940. Though the approach to treatment has significantly changed since his time, Dr. Riggs founding legacy is central to the Center’s commitment to providing and promoting care that recognizes the enduring strength and competence of people suffering from mental illness.
  • Robert Knight, MD, an early contributor to the concept of borderline personality, is named Medical Director (1947-1966) and brings other eminent staff members from the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS, including; Margaret Brenman-Gibson, PhD; Merton Gill, MD; David Rapaport, PhD; and Roy Schafer, PhD. This clinical team launches an impressive period of psychoanalytic treatment and clinical research at Riggs.
  • Erik Erikson, renowned psychoanalyst, joins the Riggs staff, from 1951 to 1960. Erikson trains and influences a generation of clinicians and social scientists with his deep understanding that society and culture play an important role in human development. His impact continues to be felt today.
  • Joan Mowat Erikson comes to Riggs in 1951. An educator, artist, and dancer, she serves as Director of Activities, and founds the Activities Program where patients take up the role of student and work with professional artisans. She also founds the on-campus Nursery School. Both are still essential parts of the Riggs community today.
  • Edward R. Shapiro, MD, is named Medical Director and CEO (1991-2011), and introduces treatment teams, family therapy, a continuum of care, and systems theory, thereby establishing a remarkable leadership era at Riggs.
  • The Erikson Institute for Education and Research is established at Riggs in 1994, to further psychoanalytic education, research, and community engagement for clinicians, educators, researchers, and scholars, and to investigate and respond to complex problems faced by patients, individuals, groups, and society.

Overview of Riggs History

In 1907, while recuperating from tuberculosis at his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, New York internist, Dr. Austen Fox Riggs, began to expand his interest in psychiatry and psychology. Influenced by the mental hygiene movement of the time, he developed his own system of treatment based on talk therapy combined with a structured routine of daily activities that emphasized a balance between work, play, rest and exercise. He founded the “Stockbridge Institute for the Psychoneuroses” (renamed “The Austen Riggs Foundation” in 1919).

Dr. Riggs died in 1940 and was succeeded by Dr. Charles H. Kimberly, who assumed the post until 1946. In 1947, Dr. Robert P. Knight came to Riggs from the Menninger Clinic and became President of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association. Led by Dr. Knight, Austen Riggs became internationally recognized as the center of American ego psychology, with a staff of preeminent psychoanalysts, including Erik H. Erikson, David Rapaport, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Merton Gill and Roy Schafer, all of whom made major contributions to this important area of psychoanalytic thought. Under his directorship the Therapeutic Community Program was developed to enhance the authority of patients and support the open setting. Joan Erikson, an artist and dancer, began the Activities Program, including the Theatre Program and the Montessori Nursery School. After Dr. Knight’s death, Dr. Otto Will, formerly of Chestnut Lodge, directed the Center and brought his understanding of early attachment problems and psychotic vulnerability to the treatment program.

Austen Riggs Center clinicians have a long history of making significant theoretical and clinical contributions to the mental health field. Erikson’s Young Man Luther was written from his experience of treating a Riggs patient; Knight’s original paper describing borderline personality disorder also derived from his clinical experience at Riggs. This tradition continues through Riggs’ Erikson Institute for Education and Research, which applies the learning from intensive work with patients to the problems of the larger society.

Over the years the clinical program at Riggs has increasingly focused on the context for the patient’s illness, and family treatment has become an important aspect of the work. Along with growth in the continuum of care (residential, day treatment, and aftercare programs designed to support patients’ transition and reintegration into society), Riggs developed interdisciplinary clinical teams, which allow continuity of care with the same clinicians throughout a patient’s stay at Riggs. Together these evolutions in clinical programs have created a stronger and more responsive institution.

The Stockbridge Campus

Since 1907 the Austen Riggs Center has been an integral part of Main Street, Stockbridge—Norman Rockwell’s quintessential American small town. The Inn, which operates as both an inpatient and residential facility, with a capacity for 40 beds, was built in the early 1890s and was sold to Riggs in 1930. The Medical Office Building was also built in the early 1890s and purchased by the Center to function as the locus for medical and administrative offices. The Elms, providing residential housing for eight patients, was built in 1772 by Timothy Edwards, a Revolutionary War colonel, and the son of Jonathan Edwards, the second minister of the Stockbridge Congregational Church. The Elms Cottage is where the first transatlantic cable message was successfully received from Europe by Cyrus W. Field.

Patients resided as paying guests at the Purinton House on Main Street until 1939 when Riggs purchased the building for patient housing. Damaged by a fire in 1981, the building was renovated with funds provided by Trustee Peter I.B. Lavan, and renamed Lavan Hall in his honor.

An Expanded Therapeutic Community

In 2005 Lavan Hall was redesigned to meet the growing needs of the Therapeutic Community. The residence was reconfigured from single units with one common kitchen and living room to three multi-bedroom apartments, each with its own kitchen, living room and common area.

In response to patient need, the Center purchased the Lilac Inn in Lenox and renovated it to accommodate eight patients, with educational offerings supporting the development of social roles as employee, parent, student and citizen.

The cornerstone of the growing therapeutic community is the new Edward R. Shapiro Community Center, designed to serve as a central gathering place. The new building is attached to the existing Patient Inn, and contains rooms for group and community meetings, social events, classrooms, recreation and exercise, as well as staff offices. Moving these activities and offices to the new building provides a focused space for the Therapeutic Community, allowing more quiet space and additional rooms at the Inn for newly admitted patients.

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