Early alienists tried to keep their profession closed from outsiders, both to maintain prestige and to ensure adequate salaries. They were very successful for many years, and superintendents of insane asylums were among the highest paid physicians in the field of medicine.
At a time when many family doctors earned annual salaries in the hundreds of dollars, asylum superintendents almost always earned at least two thousand.
The superintendency of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was a plum position, particularly for the sparsely-populated area in which it was located. Its first superintendent, Oscar Gifford, was appointed strictly through political favoritism, since he was not a medical doctor. With only one or two exceptions over many decades, other asylum superintendents held medical degrees that were often from prestigious universities abroad.
In 1901, the Sioux Valley News triumphantly announced Gifford’s appointment while noting that it “was one of the best jobs in sight.” The position paid $2,500 annually. According to one inflation calculator, that salary would translate to $69,444.44 today. For someone without the proper education, training, or experience to hold it, the position was indeed a financial windfall. Gifford must have realized quite soon that he wasn’t qualified to run an asylum, but he held onto the job for as long as he could. His lack of medical knowledge cost at least one life, however, and the consequences of his mistakes eventually forced him out.