In 1951, when German-born Charles H. Cahn first entered the beautiful grounds of the Douglas Hospital, cows grazed in the hospital’s fields, the hospital served approximately 1,200 inpatients (and no outpatients), and effective psychiatric treatments were sorely limited. Grandson of the 1920 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Walther Nernst (discoverer of the Third Law of Thermodynamics), Charles H. Cahn was also intent upon making a contribution to the world – but in the field of psychiatry.

Now, at 82 years of age, Dr. Cahn is putting the final touches to his work and will be retiring in June. He will have given 52 years of dedicated, professional service to the Douglas Hospital. The Douglas not only loses a long-time friend and an outstanding psychiatrist, but also its top historical resource on the Douglas of bygone days.

In honour of his numerous achievements, the Douglas Hospital is naming its library the Charles Cahn Library.

When Dr. Cahn first joined the Douglas, he was one of only five psychiatrists charged with treating the entire hospital population, “I was given the task of treating, under the supervision of then Clinical Director Dr. Heinz Lehmann, one thousand female patients. To be honest, I was initially a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people for whom I was responsible.

When I entered East House (now Emergency), I saw women, some of them naked, lying on the floor. There were feces on the walls. I had no medications to help depressed, anxious or psychotic people, except for sedatives and tranquillizers. It was an enormous task.”

Like the other psychiatrists, Dr. Cahn lived right on the Douglas grounds – receiving in return housing, free milk, bread, vegetables and heating. Together with his family, he lived for a number of years in the building that is now the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging. He typically worked six days a week, and was often seen in the middle of the night in Emergency, helping with particularly difficult admissions. For his efforts, he was paid approximately $5,000 per year.

A Revolution Begins

“A major career highlight took place in the late fifties”, recalls Dr. Cahn. “I worked, with Dr. Lehmann and other psychiatrists, on the first North American trial of the antidepressant imipramine. How wonderful it was to see patients responding to a medication for depression! We found we could often reduce the length of a severe depression from 4-6 months to 1 month. It was part of a revolution in psychiatry.”

As well as being a fine psychiatrist, Dr. Cahn served as Medical Superintendent from 1967-72, Director of Professional Services from 1972-84 and, from 1971-88, traveled throughout Canada as a part of the Canadian Council on Hospital Accreditation team. His 1981 history of the Douglas Hospital is renowned for its detail and readability, and his trips – to the United States and England in 1956 to study psychiatric care of the elderly and in 1984 to study psychiatric care in ten Western-European countries – expanded psychiatric knowledge and heightened the Douglas Hospital’s international reputation.


Florence Meney
Media Relation
Communications and public affairs
Phone: 514-761-6131, ext. 2769
Cell.: 514-835-3236