The big bomb
Jónas Jónsson and the Medical Organization
Major conflicts took place in Iceland during 1928 and 1929 between the Medical Organization and the then Icelandic Minister of Justice, Jónas Jónsson from the Hrifla farm.
The conflicts included, among other things, appointments to positions that were under the umbrella of the minister, the number of alcohol acquisition prescriptions during the prohibition years and the salary demands by physicians. The minister was very critical of the doctors and felt that their focus was more on monetary gains than concerning themselves with their patients and the national economy. As for the appointments to positions, several physicians felt that Jónas was ignoring experienced and older doctors; and that instead that he appointed young doctors with limited experience. In his decisions on positions, the minister ignored practices that had prevailed for many years when he made his appointments to job openings. In one specific instance the minister ignored an older and experienced doctor, who admittedly had some health problems, and appointed in his place another younger physician.
The older physician died a short while later and some of his colleagues clearly and openly maintained that the minister had literally killed the man. These conflicts then escalated as time went by.
Doctor‘s position in Keflavík Town
At their general annual meeting in 1929, the physicians decided that they themselves would handle the job appointments. When an opening occurred those interested should file their applications with the Medical Organization and ignore the ministry of justice.
Understandably, the minister became agitated and protested this method. The physicians intended, in fact through their resolution to take over the power of appointment to positions from the statutory authorities. Shortly after this, a doctor‘s position became open in Keflavík Town which is a very sought-after area. The Medical Organization called upon all its members to apply with the organization, not with the ministry. All but one physician, Sigvaldi Stefánsson Kaldalóns, a qualified doctor and also one of Iceland‘s prominent music composers, acted as provided for by his colleagues. Minister Jónas nominated Sigvaldi for the position, resulting in Sigvaldi being expelled by his fellow members from the Medical Organization. This did not have the desired results and Sigvaldi was formally appointed against the will of the Medical Organization. Jónas won this round of affairs, whereas his flaming anger and lack of trust brought the dispute literally to the brink of boil amongst the general physician population.
Jónas was the principal leader of a center party, The Progressive Party. His main opponents in the Icelandic parliament, Althingi, were the conservatives, i.e., the MPs of the Independence Party.
Debate in the Althingi
The debate in the Althingi was frequently very harsh and the MPs did not hesitate using the worst possible degrading names. The Independence Party´s MPs maintained for example that Jónas was in fact mentally ill as could be seen by his frequent explosive tantrums. He would respond strongly and it may be said that the manner of interaction was frequently quite banal to say the least.
He called one of his opponents as the „small dwarf“ just to mention an example herein about a choice of words.
Helgi Tómasson arrives at the scene
A new psychiatrist arrived in Iceland in 1929. His name was Helgi Tómasson, a well-educated physician from Denmark. Helgi, who came from a prominent family of poets and members of the clergy, was thought to be a supporter of the Independence Party, although he maintained as being politically unaffiliated. Jónas Jónsson had granted him the position of chief psychiatrist of the mental hospital, and their interaction seemed to have been peaceful.
Shortly after his return in Iceland Helgi became active in the Medical Organization and a friend to those who were the most active opponents of Minister, Jónas.
The disputes about Jónas and his person continued in the Althingi and the rumor about him having mental problems grew. Tales were told of Jónas‘ dictatorial tendencies and his mental instability. This affected Jónas negatively and his place at the top of the power ladder seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. At the beginning of 1930, Helgi together with other physicians wrote a letter to the authorities, expressing his concerns as to whether the minister was of sound mind.
Around this time Jónas became ill with influenza. Helgi seems to have decided that this matter could by no means be delayed. He went to Jonas´ house and said he wanted him to the mental hospital for examination to figure out whether he was indeed of sound mind. Before he went to Jónas´s home, he called at the home of one of the leading physicians where a meeting was held with a few of Jónas’ main opponents. There is no doubt that Helgi made this fateful health visit with the full consent and support by the leadership of the medical profession.
Actually, there are no witnesses to this meeting; hence the statements by Helgi, on the one hand, and by Jónas on the other hand, do not coincide. Helgi also had a conversation with Jónas’ wife, Gudrún, who received Helgi in the worst of terms. Helgi then went to his own house.
Jónas thought about the situation for a few days, however, then wrote an article in the centrist newspaper, Tíminn. This has proved to be the most famous newspaper article of the century, titled The Big Bomb. In his article, Jónas used derisive words about Helgi’s working methods and accused him of inappropriate conduct. Jónas said that Helgi was acting on behalf of his political adversaries and thereby abusing his position as a physician and chief doctor of the mental hospital. The article drew much attention and generated compassion for Jónas. Helgi responded , as did some of his supporters, nevertheless Jónas had a stronghold in this conflict.
It immediately became political with the members of Jónas’ party gathering around him, whereas the Independence Party supported Helgi. Several newspaper articles were published about this matter with the authors using the strongest terms and descriptions.
Jónas fired Helgi from his position at Kleppur, the mental hospital, and hired a replacement. He demanded in court that Helgi should be ordered to submit all his medical journals to him. The court ruled in favor of this demand. Helgi said that Jónas also made it impossible for him to apply for any position within the Danish state; hence Helgi literally had but a very few options. He opened a medical clinic and embarked on a private medical practice.
This matter attracted much attention at the Nordic Countries and extensive coverage by the Scandinavian news media. Jónas was said to have spoken with the Danish Prime Minister, Stauning, who turned against Helgi.
Time went by and it gradually turned out that the physician who Jónas hired was totally incompetent for this position. He was a heavy drinker and unable to shoulder his responsibilities. The employees complained and the situation at the hospital seemed to be in much disarray. Helgi was therefore rehired in 1932 when Jónas ceased being the Minister of Justice and Health.
This issue left a trail of unresolved matters. I believe Helgi made a major mistake when he embarked on this political venture. He never examined Jónas or interviewed him in a conventional manner; hence he clearly based his diagnosis on hearsay and gossip, not on conventional clinical measures. This matter turned psychiatry in Iceland into a political vexed question. The Independence Party was always supportive of Helgi and the hospital, whereas the Progressive Party and various leftist affiliated persons never forgave Helgi for his precipitation.
Helgi was a much-disputed person which is not good for a psychiatrist, not least one leading a special professional discipline. This matter stuck with him and was frequently referred to, both in a serious manner and jokingly. To the best of my knowledge, Helgi never discussed it.
Helgi never wrote his biography; hence we do not have the whole story about his intentions when he went on this fateful medical path in February 1930. □
Translated from Icelandic by Ellen Ingvadóttir, Court Interpreter and Authorized Translator