Category Archives: Medical History

Theories concerning the cause and cure of disease have changed over thousands of years, and the medical community has shifted its approach to treatment as data concerning illness have changed. Heroic medicine, once the norm, pursued extreme forms of purging and bleeding that nearly killed patients, Later physicians rejected this approach, and tried gentler methods of relief, though they often relied on opiates and sometimes poisonous concoctions that harmed patients. The various treatments through the years make for an interesting study in what the human body has submitted to in the quest for health.

Other Ills at the Asylum

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Though there is no mention of any smallpox epidemics at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, the threat of this terrible disease was very real. Smallpox had devastated Native American communities once Europeans arrived, since native peoples had no immunity to a disease they had never encountered. Mortality estimates range from 50% for the Cherokee, Catawba, and Huron, and as high as 90% for the Mandan after first contact.

Native Americans did not immediately connect smallpox to the Europeans who brought it. Plains tribes thought the disease was the Bad Spirit appearing, while the Creeks and Cherokees thought it came to them because they had violated tribal laws. Missionaries and Jesuits were later blamed for smallpox because of their religious paraphernalia and concern about dying, and they may well have carried infection to the various peoples they visited in the course of their work.

By the early 1900s, Native Americans were well aware that Europeans had brought this tremendous disaster with them. In 1914, Dr. Harry Hummer vaccinated 48 patients and five employees against smallpox. (Another five employees had previously contracted smallpox, and 13 refused the vaccination.) Hummer asked  the Commissioner of Indian Affairs what he should do about the employees who had refused the vaccine, and he had a right to be concerned. Considering the frail health that many of his patients endured, smallpox would have been an overwhelming illness for them to fight.

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

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Grimes Was Not Impressed

Morningside Hospital Patient Ward, circa 1935

When Dr. John Maurice Grimes inspected mental institutions in the U.S. (see last two posts), he discovered that the federal asylum in Washington, DC, (St. Elizabeths) was overcrowded. Continue reading

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Federal Facilities for the Insane

Life During the Great Depression for Many Men

Life During the Great Depression Was Tough for Many Men

When Dr. John Maurice Grimes published Institutional Care of Mental Patients in the United States at his own expense (see last post), he was able to speak freely about his findings.

His comments about Veterans Administration hospitals which treated mental patients were heartening: on the whole, he found VA facilities almost always situated on pleasant plots of land with room for necessary buildings and recreational activities. Continue reading

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Misery on Display

The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum

The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum

Most patients, of course, did not want to be in an asylum, and moving into one very likely added to whatever problem that had brought them there. Doctors’ management of their conditions may or may not have alleviated their distress (see last post), since much of the available medication in the 1800s and early 1900s had undesirable or unpleasant side effects.

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A Delicate Balance

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Superintendents at insane asylums had every incentive to cure patients, since high cure rates brought both prestige and validation to their institutions. This is one reason that they urged families to get their loved ones into an asylum quickly, before the mental illness became established and more difficult to alleviate or cure. Continue reading

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What Do You Learn?

Female Patient (West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum)

Female Patient (West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum)

Modern researchers sometimes pass judgment on whether or not a person should have been committed to an insane asylum–but It isn’t always an easy call. Reading patient notes can lead one to believe that disruptiveness rather than insanity caused a commitment (see last post), or that patients were committed for conditions that we realize today have nothing to do with insanity, such as epilepsy. Continue reading

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So Easy to Leave

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Certain patients with mental illness were more difficult to manage than others, and families often grew tired of coping with a disruptive member who perhaps drained them physically and emotionally. An asylum offered a wonderful solution to the problem, and some families were quick to leave a relative at one and never look back. Continue reading

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Commit and Forget

Alienists Sought Early Intervention for Insanity

Alienists Sought Early Intervention for Insanity

Spectacular cases of involuntary commitment have found their way into newspapers and books and are interesting to read about, but in reality, many families were reluctant to commit their loved ones to an asylum. Authorities hoped that their magnificent buildings and varied amenities would reassure family qualms so that patients would be admitted before their cases became chronic. Continue reading

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Who Watches the Watchers?

Thomas Kirkbride Verbalized the One Man and One Rule Philosophy

Thomas Kirkbride Verbalized the One Man and One Rule Philosophy

The insane asylum at Yankton, SD (see last post) was typical of its time. It had a board  of  men in a trustee relationship who were charged with watching over the running of the asylum. Their duties were varied and wide-ranging, and it is likely that the asylum’s superintendent was not always happy with their oversight.

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Water Treatments

Continuous Bath Room, Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, 1918, courtesy Kalamazoo Public Library

Continuous Bath Room, Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, 1918

Patients entering an asylum were frequently given sedatives or tonics, depending upon their physical state, as well as a strong laxative to clean them out. Warm baths were thought to be calming and were frequently prescribed for agitated patients.  Continue reading

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