Malted Milk and madness in Huntsville

Posted by | July 11, 2017

Today Dr. William Henry Burritt is remembered in Huntsville, AL as the man who left his mountaintop estate to the city in 1955, and in doing so, provided that city’s first public museum: the fourteen-room, “X” shaped, Burritt Museum and Historic Park on Round Top Mountain.

One of Dr. Burritt’s earliest charitable donations sounds like an odd thing to modern ears, and therein hangs a tale.

As both the son and grandson of two noted homeopathic physicians, it seems only natural that Burritt would have been interested in natural, non-pharmacological remedies from an early age.

Dr. William Henry BurrittThat, and the fact that his mother, two of his uncles, his sister, and his only nephew had all been committed due to mental instability, may help explain why Dr. Burritt and his first wife Pearl, wealthy new arrivals to Huntsville looking to make a good impression, felt committed to donate malted milk to the community’s recently opened (1895) City Infirmary.

Malted milk? The stuff of candies and soda shop concoctions? What has that got to do with mental health remedies?

Malted milk was originally created in 1887 as an easily digested infant’s food made from an extract of wheat and malted barley, combined with milk and made into a powder called “diastoid,” by James and William Horlick of Racine, WI. Horlick supposedly coined the name “malted milk,” but his formula resembled one already being marketed in England. He promoted his mixture of dried milk extracts of malted barley and wheat as a food supplement for infants and invalids (mental illness was broadly included in the latter category).

Horlick's Malted MilkWilliam Burritt graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 1890, and immediately moved into post graduate study at the Pulte Medical College in Cincinnati and at the New York Lying-in Hospital. As a highly educated, well traveled man, it’s no surprise he’d learned of Horlick’s recent invention. And he may well have passed along his knowledge and experience with malted milk to another Huntsville family also plagued by mental illness.

Remember Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper? Two of his seven children had schizophrenia. One of those, daughter Mary Virginia, moved into Huntsville’s ‘Kildare’ mansion in 1900. Or more accurately, the trust fund established for the heiress purchased the home on her behalf and established her there, supported by a large staff under the guidance of one Grace Walker.

Dr. Burritt certainly would have encountered Mary Virginia McCormick in Huntsville society circles: he was by then a member of a Huntsville social group called the ‘Chimpanzee Club,’ formed for evenings of polite social conversation, dinner, chamber recitals, and theater productions; He was also a member of the Civitan Club, Kappa Sigma, Madison County Chapter of the Citizens Historical Assn., the Church of the Nativity, an Episcopal Church in Huntsville, and the Republican Party.

Mary Virginia McCormick in 1901Mary Virginia McCormick in 1901.

The historical record doesn’t tell us whether Mary Virginia took malted milk as a curative, but we do know her brother Stanley, who lived in Boston, did. By 1906, his episodes had increased to the extent that he was hospitalized at McLean Hospital for the Insane in that city. He was diagnosed with “dementia praecox of the catatonic type,” —schizophrenia— characterized by marked violent outbursts and gradual mental deterioration, punctuated by periods of relative clarity. His intake report noted the family history of mental illness: “All the family of nervous temperament, mother eccentric, sister insane.”

The same report noted that Stanley was fed eggnog, oyster stew, and malted milk.


One Response

  • Randy says:

    I recently acquired a Horlick’s box with the six bottles like the one in this article. I would very much appreciate any information on the purpose of box. Thanks.

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