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Cleckely was born in Augusta, Georgia and graduated from the Academy of Richmond County in 1921. He graduated in 1924 summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens. He was a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from Oxford University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1926.
Cleckley then earned his M.D. from the University of Georgia Medical School (now known as the Medical College of Georgia) in Augusta in 1929 and was named professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Medical College of Georgia and the Chief of psychiatry/neurology at University Hospital in Augusta in 1937. In 1955, Cleckley was appointed clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology at the medical college. He was founding chairman of the Department of Psychiatry & Health Behavior at that college as well.
In 1941, Cleckley authored his magnum opus The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. This became a landmark in psychiatric studies and was repeatedly reprinted in subsequent editions (the most recent in 2003). Dr. Cleckley revised and expanded the work with each edition published in his lifetime. The second American edition of 1950 underwent the most substantial additions and improvements. Robert Hare devised the "Psychopathy Checklist" (PCL) to assess the main characteristics of psychopathic behavior, based in part on Dr. Cleckley's work.
The The Mask of Sanity is distinguished by its central thesis, that the psychopath exhibits normal function according to standard psychiatric criterion, yet privately engages in destructive behavior. The book was intended to assist with detection and diagnosis of the elusive psychopath for purposes of palliation and not as a cure for the condition itself. The idea of a master deceiver secretly possessed of no moral or ethical restraints, yet behaving in public with excellent function, electrified American society and led to heightened interest in both psychological self-introspection and the detection of hidden psychopaths in society at large, leading to a refinement of the word itself into what was perceived to be a less stigmatizing term, "sociopath."
Other notable professional distinctions of Cleckley include Fellow of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and psychiatrist in the trial of Ted Bundy. Cleckley also authored The Caricature of Love: A Discussion of Social, Psychiatric, and Literary Manifestations of Pathologic Sexuality.
- UGA Rhodes Scholars:1903-1999
- Hervey Cleckley and Corbett Thigpen, Augusta Chronicle, Web posted January 1, 2000
- Introduction to the Cleckley-Thigpen Psychiatric Associates Papers at the University of Georgia Hargrett Manuscript Collection
- Thigpen & Cleckley (1954): A case of multiple personality
- The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. (St. Louis, MO: C.V. Mosby, 1941). First Edition.
- The Journal of the American Medical Association: Books, Journals, New Media, Vol. 283 No. 19, May 17, 2000
- Hervey M. Cleckley, The mask of sanity; an attempt to clarify some issues about the so-called psychopathic personality. Fifth edition, copyright 1988, Emily S. Cleckley Scanned facsimile produced for non-profit educational use, ISBN 0-9621519-0-4
- All About Eve, Time Magazine, February 18, 1957
- Robert Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us (New York: Pocket Books, 1993)
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