Factors in the way alienists (early experts in mental health) treated the insane arose from the medical field’s understanding of the mind. In certain ways, physicians (and alienists) were surprisingly ahead of their time, since they believed that the mind profoundly affected the body. However, they often over-emphasized this aspect of the mind-body connection to arrive at simplistic or sometimes surprising conclusions.
In her 1906 book, The Perfect Woman, Mary R. Melendy discusses this mind-body connection during pregnancy. ” . . . we met with a youth who had finely molded limbs and a symmetrical form throughout,” she says. Melendy stated that the mother did not have this same symmetry or beauty and then continued, “The boy is doubtless indebted for his fine form to the presence of a beautiful French lithograph in his mother’s sleeping apartment, and which is presented for her contemplation the faultless form of a naked child.” Melendy likewise attributed the presence of so many beautiful Italian girls to the prevalence of Madonna images throughout the country.
This belief that the mind could affect the body so profoundly was one reason alienists felt it was important to take patients from their homes–where their mental illness originated–and shelter them in asylums. There, new habitats and calming scenery could lead disturbed minds toward a new perspective. Recreational activities, mild distractions, and (and at least in the early days of asylums) quality time with a sympathetic asylum physician, were ways to divert a patient’s thoughts from “wrong” views and toward a more beneficial outlook.