Plath’s (Blessed, Excellent) Doctors


From London Review of Books:

When Plath moved from Devon back to London in the late autumn, one of the things that seemed to thrill her most was the easy access to medical care. ‘I am back with my panel of blessed, excellent doctors,’ she told her mother in November. A month later, she wrote: ‘It is such a relief to be back with my wonderful and understanding Doctor Horder.’

Plath had reason to be wary of the American healthcare system. During the breakdown that led to her first suicide attempt in August 1953, when she was a student at Smith College, one of the factors that contributed to her decision to kill herself was the knowledge that her family would not be able to afford the medical care she needed. She had already been given electroshock therapy by a psychiatrist at a private hospital, and felt guilty about the expense. The therapy was administered improperly and painfully, and made Plath – who had no idea that the treatment had been botched – feel worse than ever.

After her suicide attempt, Plath had a brief but traumatic experience in the psychiatric ward of a public hospital; Olive Higgins Prouty, the writer and philanthropist who funded Plath’s scholarship to Smith, then paid for her to go to McLean Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where over four months she underwent both insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy. She returned to Smith in January 1954, certain that without her time at McLean she would never have been well enough to return to Smith so soon, if ever.

These experiences must have been on Plath’s mind when, shortly after moving back to London at the end of 1962, her depression began to worsen. Her situation was dire; she was a single mother caring for two toddlers, rising every day at 4 a.m. to write – her only source of income – before the children woke up. That winter was the worst to hit London for more than a century.

“Sylvia Plath and the NHS”, Anne Thériault, London Review of Books