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.

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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Water Therapy

Taking the Waters at the Columbian Springs

Taking the Waters at the Columbian Springs

Water therapies, known collectively as hydrotherapy, were popular forms of treatment for insanity. Most people today have relaxed under the influence of a warm, soothing soak in a tub, but it is interesting to note that bathing for health or medical reasons was popular long before bathing as a sanitation practice became nearly universal. Continue reading

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Gender Inequality

Portrait of An Insane Woman, Hugh Welch Diamond, 1852

Portrait of An Insane Woman, by Hugh Welch Diamond, 1852

Treatment for mental disorders was generally hit-or-miss in most insane asylums, and many superintendents embarked on experimental procedures simply because there weren’t any reliable ways to help patients. Some treatments were more bizarre than others, and unfortunately, some of the treatments aimed at female patients were based on mistaken physiology-based causes of insanity. Continue reading

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Few Patients Came Voluntarily

Elizabeth Packard Being Kidnapped in Broad Daylight and Taken to an Insane Asylum, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Elizabeth Packard Being Kidnapped in Broad Daylight and Taken to an Insane Asylum, courtesy National Library of Medicine

The case of Peter Thompson Good Boy (see last three posts) shows how easy it was for a Native American to lose his freedom. It would be safe to say that few or no patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians actually wanted to be there. Patient Susan Wishecoby thought she was going to a hospital when she agreed to go; she apparently had epilepsy or something like it that gave her “spells” that were disruptive. Continue reading

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