Mary Jane Ward

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Mary Jane Ward at her typewriter
Mary Jane Ward
Born(1905-08-27)August 27, 1905
DiedFebruary 17, 1981(1981-02-17) (aged 75)
Notable work
The Snake Pit

Mary Jane Ward (August 27, 1905 in Fairmount, Indiana—February 17, 1981, in Tucson, Arizona) was an American novelist whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit was made into an Oscar-winning film.


Ward authored eight books during her lifetime, the most noted being The Snake Pit, which received widespread critical acclaim after its publication in 1946. Ward's semi-autobiographical story about a woman's recovery from mental illness made more than a hundred thousand dollars in its first month; it was quickly chosen for Random House’s book-of-the-month club, was condensed by Readers Digest, and developed into an Oscar-winning film The Snake Pit, starring Olivia de Havilland.[1] [2] Ward’s story, along with the ensuing film, was credited with instigating public dialogue on the condition of state psychiatric hospitals and influencing reform legislation. Three years after the book’s release, Daily Variety journalist Herb Stein wrote that Wisconsin had become “the seventh state to institute reforms in its mental hospitals as a result of The Snake Pit.”[3]


Mary Jane Ward was born August 27, 1905 in Fairmount, Indiana. Ward—cousin of Ross Lockridge, Jr.—maintained an interest in writing and music from an early age; as a teenager, she composed her own music, but would eventually choose writing as her main focus. After graduating from high school, Ward studied at Northwestern University and at Chicago's Lyceum of Arts Conservatory, and went on to work at a series of odd jobs. In March 1928, she married Edward Quayle, a statistician and amateur playwright, and became inspired to submit her own writing for publication. Ward published a few short stories, and in 1937 she received a job as a book reviewer for the Evanston News-Index. That same year, E. P. Dutton published Ward's novel The Tree Has Roots. A second novel, The Wax Apple, was published in 1938. Both books received decent reviews but did not achieve much popularity.[4]

Ward and Quayle moved to Greenwich Village in 1939. Neither of them was very successful in publishing their material, and the financial stress eventually proved to be too much for Ward, who suffered a nervous breakdown and ended up spending more than eight months at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York. Ward was diagnosed with psychosis and her therapy included electroconvulsive therapy [5] Over the next few years, drawing from her experiences at the psychiatric institution, Ward penned the novel The Snake Pit. The book was published in 1946 and received glowing reviews from critics and from experts in the psychiatric field.

At the time The Snake Pit was released, Ward denied that the story reflected in any way on her own life, but it was later revealed that the book had been formed around her experiences at Rockland. The kindly character “Dr. Kik” was·based on Gerard Chrzanowski, who treated Ward at Rockland and had studied with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.[6] Dr. Militades Zaphiropoulos, who also worked at Rockland while Ward was being treated there, stated in an interview that Chrzanowski was nicknamed “Dr. Kik” because Americans tended to have difficulty pronouncing his name.[7]

After the success of The Snake Pit, Ward and Quayle moved to a dairy farm outside of Chicago, where Ward continued to write. She went on to publish The Professor’s Umbrella (1948), A Little Night Music (1951), It’s Different for a Woman (1952), Counterclockwise (1969), and The Other Caroline (1970). Editing the last of these books for her publisher was accomplished by Millen Brand, one of the screen writers for the film Snake Pit who had become a friend. [8]

Ward was hospitalized for psychiatric issues three more times during her lifetime, and her last two novels revisit the theme of psychiatric illness. She died on February 17, 1981, in Tucson, Arizona, at the age of 75.


  1. ^ Yaël Ksander, Moment of Indiana History: Mary Jane Ward, March 24, 2008.
  2. ^ Ward, M. J. (1946b, May). The snake pit. Reader’s Digest, 130–168.
  3. ^ Clooney, Nick (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. p. 143. ISBN 0-7434-1043-2.
  4. ^ Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Mugar Library, Boston University; Mary Jane Ward biography.
  5. ^ Harris, B. (2021). The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx with Freud in Hollywood. History of Psychology. 24, 228-254.
  6. ^ Chrzanowski, G. (1943). Contrasting responses to electric shock therapy in clinically similar catatonics; psychological indications in therapy and prognosis. Psychiatric Quarterly, 17, 282–293.
  7. ^ New York Times obituary for Gerard Chrzanowski, November 12, 2000.
  8. ^ Brand, Millen (7 May 1970). Letter to Karl Menninger. Millen Brand Papers, Columbia University, Box 4.

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