Category Archives: Medical treatments

Medical treatments for insanity were often harsh and punitive. They included the liberal use of narcotics. Doctors and attendants used drugs to sedate patients to make them easier to manage. Physical restraints were often used.

Combating Smallpox

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Smallpox decimated Native Americans (see last post) after Europeans arrived and spread this virulent disease on a population with no immunity to it. However, the disease was not simply accepted and endured. Though native peoples did not immediately connect smallpox with Europeans, they did understand illness and how to treat it.

Native Americans first turned to traditional medical practices to help combat smallpox. Drums, rattles, and incantations helped patients rally, while fasting and dreaming also followed traditional healing ways. Herbs and oils were used to alleviate discomfort. Unfortunately, the common use of the sweat lodge in treatment may have made a patient’s condition worse, since heat and steam caused sweating and dehydration, while cold water plunges may have overly shocked the body.

The Cherokee developed a Smallpox Dance in the 1830s, and other tribes formed curing societies and developed healing rituals. Families eventually stopped their traditional practice of crowding around a sick patient and allowed a quarantine for those with smallpox; people also avoided traveling to places with active cases, and burned (or thoroughly cleaned) homes where someone had died of smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine was available as early as the 1700s, though Native Americans were not routinely vaccinated. When the vaccine was offered, however, many native peoples took advantage of it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the official vaccination administrator, but missionaries and  traders also urged vaccines. Traders, especially, who cared little for Washington politics and did not need to put white settlers’ needs ahead of their trading partners’, were probably just as successful in helping the vaccination effort as the BIA.

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

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Material Improvements

Operating Room at Georgia State Lunatic Asylu

Operating Room at Georgia State Lunatic Asylum

For such a small institution dependent on government funds, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had a surprisingly robust building program. Dr. Harry Hummer constantly requested new buildings, upgrades to old ones, new farm acreage (and then new outbuildings to accommodate more livestock and feed), as well as new patient buildings. Near and dear to his heart were two buildings in particular: an epileptic cottage and a hospital.

Dr. Hummer never received his epileptic cottage, though he requested one many times. He did get the hospital, which presumably made more sense to the appropriations committee which designated money for such projects.

When the hospital was approved for construction, Dr. Hummer received full credit for it: “The entire enterprise owes its inception, development and consummation to Dr. Hummer,” said a writer for the Sioux Valley News. The paper went on to say that when the two-story, brick and concrete building was completed, “the sick will be provided with the best that science means and experience can contribute.”

When Dr. Samuel Silk inspected the hospital in 1929, its operating room had “no equipment whatsoever, except for a surgical table, a slop sink and two wash bowls.”

Epilepsy Was Considered a Form of Insanity, so Cures Were Widely Sought

Epilepsy Was Considered a Form of Insanity, so Cures Were Widely Sought

Virginia State Epileptic Colony Cottage for Feeble-Minded Women

Virginia State Epileptic Colony Cottage for Feeble-Minded Women

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Which Was Worse?

Clifford Beers and His Influential Book

Clifford Beers and His Influential Book

State insane asylums are usually thought to be a little (or a lot) worse than private institutions, and that is probably true in many cases. Private asylums had a bit more freedom in accepting patients and in hiring staff, and that was often reflected in the their general atmosphere and the treatment of patients. However, private institutions could have their own problems. Continue reading

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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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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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Asylum Adjustment

Wet Sheet Pack, 1902, Used to Calm Patients

Wet Sheet Pack, 1902, Used to Calm Patients

No one could be pleased to find him or herself unexpectedly in an insane asylum (see last post) and it is remarkable that so many patients (who later wrote about their experiences) managed to stay calm enough to protect themselves. Patients able to keep their cool and observe the situation quickly saw that protests did them no good, nor did stubbornness or resistance in any form. Continue reading

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Focus Of Inspections

Interior, First Floor, Staircase and Gallery, Welfare Island, Insane Asylum, New York, New York County, courtesy Library of Congress

Interior, First Floor, Staircase and Gallery, Welfare Island, Insane Asylum, New York, New York County, courtesy Library of Congress

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was inspected many times throughout its life. However, inspectors tended to focus on “things” rather than people. In a January, 1912 report that discussed some sewer problems at the asylum (see last post), Inspector Jacob Breid also discussed–in detail–the physical condition of the building. Continue reading

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The Chronic Insane

Outagamie County Asylum for the Chronic Insane, Wisconsin, circa 1889

Outagamie County Asylum for the Chronic Insane, Wisconsin, circa 1889

Alienists stressed that the prompt treatment of insanity was imperative to a cure. They cautioned the public that it was far wiser to bring an afflicted person to an asylum for a cure as soon as possible, rather than let the patient languish at home for years until an asylum became a last resort. By that point, the disease might have too strong a hold and never be shaken. Continue reading

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