In the 1960s, Colorado Springs family plagued by schizophrenia

Taylor Burnfield 

tburnfie@uccs.edu  

Editor’s note: The information within this article was taken from the book “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” by Robert Kolker. 

Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of abuse and violence.

     The Galvin family was what you would expect any middle-class family to be like during the mid-20th century in Colorado Springs.  

     Don Galvin taught at the Air Force Academy and his wife, Mimi Galvin, was a stay-at-home mom. The family was heavily involved within the Colorado Springs community and attended church every Sunday.  

     The Galvin family seemed relatively normal with one exception: six of their 12 children were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  

     It began with their oldest son, Donald. While away at Colorado State University, Donald began to exhibit disturbing behavior. First, he jumped straight into a bonfire. Then, he slowly strangled a cat. Donald sought out the health services at his university but was not given an official diagnosis.  

     Donald would not be given a definitive diagnosis until he tried to murder his wife a few years later. He was eventually sent to what was formerly the State Mental Hospital in Pueblo where his behavior was finally given an explanation: schizophrenia.  

     This was the 1960s when little was understood about mental illness, schizophrenia being no exception. At the time, it was widely believed that schizophrenia was caused by poor parenting. Specifically, it was believed that schizophrenia was caused by an overbearing mother.  

     But placing the blame on Mimi, the Galvin matriarch, did little to help Donald’s worsening illness and five of his brothers would soon follow in his footsteps.  

     There was Matthew, who believed that he was Paul McCartney; Peter, who displayed violent outbursts; Joseph, who heard voices and saw apparitions in the sky; Jim, who harmed himself and abused his younger sisters; and Brian, who killed his girlfriend before killing himself.  

The Galvin family standing in front of their Colorado Springs home in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy of hidden-valley-road.com

     One by one, each of the Galvin boys were taken away to state hospitals. The oldest, Donald, was admitted to the State Mental Hospital in Pueblo more than a dozen times.  

     One of the younger sons, Peter, was admitted to Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs. Peter was taken out of Penrose Hospital by his mother after she witnessed that he had been strapped to his hospital bed, covered in his own urine.  

     Despite the numerous hospital visits and countless prescription medications, little could be done to help the Galvin brothers. Schizophrenia treatment was more about managing symptoms than finding a cure. Common treatments at the time included shock therapy and lobotomies.  

     It was widely believed that studying schizophrenia was a lost cause. Doctors who dared to study the complex disease were met with ridicule. Dr. Lynn DeLisi was one such doctor.  

     Considered an outsider by the medical community, DeLisi had a controversial idea: What if schizophrenia was genetic?  

     In the 1980s, DeLisi heard about the Galvins’ unusual case and wanted to study the Galvin family. Desperate for answers, the family was thrilled and willing to take part in DeLisi’s tests.  

     DeLisi collected the Galvins’ blood, studied their DNA and made an incredible discovery: Genetics do, in fact, play a role in the development of schizophrenia. This was something that was never thought possible before.  

     Despite DeLisi’s breakthrough research, schizophrenia remains a complicated, misunderstood disease. The exact cause of schizophrenia is still not known. However, the disease is better understood now than in previous decades, thanks to the Galvin family and their participation in DeLisi’s research.  

     Donald and Matthew Galvin still live in Colorado Springs while Peter lives near Pueblo. Their father, Don, passed away in 2003 and their mother, Mimi, passed away in 2017.  

Graphic created by Taylor Burnfield.