Dr. George Leonard Harrington

Dr. Glasser always spoke warmly about Dr. George Harrington, whom he considered to be his mentor in UCLA and, in 1965, Dr, Glasser dedicated his book “Reality Therapy” “To G.L. Harrington, M.D.” It was in fact Dr. Harrington who convinced Glasser about the role of choice in so-called “mental illness”.

Glasser reported that one day Dr. Harrington took him to visit a long-term catatonic patient. This tall gentleman of Native American stock would spend the day in silence and with one arm raised in the air. Dr. Harrington invited Glasser to observe as he walked up close to the patient and began talking about him.

Raising his voice so that the patient could hear him, he said words to the effect that this “so-and-so” (using slightly more colourful language) spends all day with his arm in the air. Harrington apologetically explained to Glasser that such language had more impact. On repeating this description several times in a critical tone, the patient eventually responded by lowering his arm protesting that nobody could talk to him like that because he was a veteran (ex-military). If there is any one moment when we might say that the basic principle of Choice Theory was born, this was probably it.

Dr. Harrington’s life

George Leonard Harrington was born on 6th February 1916 in Independence, Missouri, United States of America. He studied at the University of Kansas receiving a medical degree in 1941. During these student years he played football for the university. During the first World War he interned in Chicago. In the second World War he served in the Pacific as a Navy flight surgeon. He received a Personal Citation, Distinguished Flying Cross, and four Air Medals as a result of his service.

In 1946, George began his residency training in psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation of Psychiatry, later becoming a faculty member at the Menninger School of Psychiatry. He also served as chief of professional services at the Winter VA Hospital in Topeka, Kansas and was a member of the American Psychiatric Association. In 1955, he moved with his family to Pacific Palisades, where he began private practice. He was also a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and head of psychiatric services at Brentwood VA Hospital until 1965.

He served as staff psychiatrist in charge of a research project on chronic mental illness at the Brentwood VA Hospital. It was during this time that William Glasser began developing his ideas about therapy based on his mentoring by Harrington. In the acknowledgments of the book, “Reality Therapy”, Glasser mentioned that few people challenged the basic tenets of conventional psychiatry. He wrote, “one of these few was my last teacher, Dr. G.L. Harrington. When I hesitatingly expressed my own concern, he reached across the desk, shook my hand and said ‘join the club’.” Over a period of eight years Glasser explained that Harrington worked with him to develop the concepts of Reality Therapy. Glasser formulated this approach and his challenge to traditional psychiatry in his book, “Reality Therapy” published in 1965 and dedicated to Harrington.

Dr. Harrington had many noted writers and entertainers among his patients, many of whom dedicated works to him. The playwright George Furth dedicated his Broadway play, “Company,” to Dr. Harrington, who was an avid sailor and continued this activity until his death in 1988.

Insights from a medical colleague

Dr. Micheal Kennedy worked with Dr. Harrington and his observations provide a fascinating insight into this amazing medic whom he described as “the most impressive man I have ever met in Medicine“. (See https://abriefhistory.org/?p=7201). Dr. Kennedy wrote:

Harrington was a big rugged looking guy who walked with a limp from a femur fracture incurred in an auto accident soon after he finished his residency at Menninger Clinic. He told me his father had been a minister who became a lay psychoanalyst and spent time in Vienna with Sigmund Freud. In fact, he told me that he had sat on Freud’s knee as a child. From the time he was 17 he wanted to be an analyst. His father was at Menninger hence his MD from U of Kansas. After the war, he began his residency at Menninger and found that analysis had little or nothing to offer psychotic patients. He told me that every summer, the staff psychiatrists would leave the state hospital on vacation, leaving the medical students to take over. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he was getting nowhere with psychotics using analysis. He was a funny guy with a great sense of humor and an ability to mimic.

He became a clinical professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and took over a ward at the Sawtelle VA hospital sometime before 1962 when I met him. He told me that staff at the VA were very skeptical of his new ideas on therapy so, early in his tenure, they lined up a “hard case” for him to demonstrate this new “talk therapy. ” The new drugs had made things much easier to deal with schizophrenics and he wanted to go beyond with some sort of behavioral therapy. He said the patient was a typical schizophrenic little guy. Harrington asked him how things were and the patient responded with a long stream of typical crazy talk. Harrington listened to all this, then responded that something very similar had happened to him. He then repeated almost verbatim the same stream of crazy talk the patient had related. Half way through, the patient he said began to laugh. He was no longer psychotic, if he had ever been so. He liked having a bed and three square meals a day. He had memorized enough crazy talk to keep everyone convinced that he belonged there. Harrington cautioned me that anybody who wanted to live in a nut house was not normal. Still, the guy was just not that psychotic. He convinced the ward staff that there was something to his ideas. After that, everybody on the staff was part of the treatment team. Even the guy who ran the floor polisher was invited to the Wednesday staff meeting.

What Harrington did was to set up a program of rules that taught these psychotic patients that we knew they were crazy and we were not about to throw them out into a world that scared them so badly. We also, me especially, talked to them and focused on the part that was not crazy. It could be exhausting to do so but patients would respond. One of them told me as I was leaving at at the end of the summer to go back to school that talking to me allowed more of his mind to come out of the psychosis. Of course, he didn’t put it that way but that is what it sounded like to me. It was an intense summer and George Harrington was someone I will never forget.


Private services were held for Dr. G. L. Harrington, a longtime Pacific Palisades resident who died at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center on August 28, 1988. He was 72 years old. (See https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/174693256/george-leonard-harrington)

Dr. Harrington’s Family

George’s father was also George Leonard Harrington (1885-1953) and his mother was Alice Myra Criley (1886-1952). He had one sister, Alice Myra Harrington (Mosser) (1921-1993).

George married Willa Mae Redfield in 1939. Willa passed away on 3 January 2006, aged 89, just over 17 years after George. Willa was a concert pianist in her youth. Their home had been in the Palisades area of Los Angeles from 1955 to 1997. Willa and George had three children: George, Carter and Deborah. (See https://www.palipost.com/willa-harrington-89-former-palisadian/)

Glasser and Harrington

The name “Harrington” seems to have stemmed from the Old English “Hoeferingtun” which meant a “settlement on stony ground”. The “Glasser” surname came from the Middle High German word for “glass”. Their names provided uncannily appropriate metaphors for the new structures that Harrington and Glasser would build, moving from the stony ground of conventional psychiatry to a new vision of the role.

In the prepration of the fascinating Glasser biography, “William Glasser, Champion of Choice” (2014), author Jim Roy had extensive interviews with Dr. Glasser. In these, as in his talks and publications, Glasser frequently acknowledged the contribution that Dr. Harrington had made to the development of his ideas. It became equally clear that Dr. Harrington, almost fifty at the time and at the peak of his professional career, had become nervous with the revolutionary ideas that Glasser outlined in “Reality Therapy”. Glasser fully understood and respected this caution and, although it may have caused some distance between them, he never ever forgot the genius that was Dr. George Leonard Harrington. We are all indebted to this other Giant of Choice.


19160George Leonard Harrington born in Independence, Missouri, USA.
193923married Willa Mae Redfield
194125medical degree from the University of Kansas
194630Menninger Foundation of Psychiatry
195539Private practice in Pacific Palisades
195640Veteran Administration Centre. Meets William Glasser
195741Glasser ended residency but continued to meet with Harrington
196246in UCLA to 1965. Glasser created the name “Reality Therapy” in Vancouver
196549Glasser published “Reality Therapy” and dedicated it to Dr Harrington
198872Death of George Leonard Harrington
2006Death of Willa Mae Harrington (Redfield), aged 89

With special thanks to Jimmie Woods, Sr. Basil and Graham Reynolds for tracking down initial information about Dr. Harrington.

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