Tag Archives: Dr. Harvey Black

Food for Thought

Farm With Hospital Buildings on Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

Farm With Hospital Buildings at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

A man suffering from acute melancholia and admitted to Stockton State Mental Asylum (likely in the late 1890s or early 1900s) mentioned  that his first noon dinner (lunch) consisted of soup, beans, and potatoes. His 6:00 p.m. supper was only tea and bread. This meager menu was a far cry from the original intentions of asylum founders, who strove to provide nourishing meals to patients as part of their treatment programs.

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Farms were usually incorporated into asylum grounds, both to provide fresh produce for patients and staff, and to provide useful “occupational therapy” for able-bodies patients. Superintendents proudly reported the pounds of produce they had raised, as in Dr. Harvey Black’s report for Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (Virginia) at the end of fiscal year 1887. He noted that their gardens had produced 400 bushels of turnips valued at 25 cents/bushel, 12,000 heads of cabbage at 5 cents each, and 62 dozen squash at 15 cents/dozen. Altogether, the gardens produced nearly $2,000 worth of goods for the asylum’s kitchen.

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Since the asylum had treated only 162 patients that year, the amount of food grown (Black mentions 16 different crops) probably allowed for a reasonably healthy diet–perhaps better than some patients were able to get at home. Though working on a farm sounds distasteful today, some patients undoubtedly enjoyed it: they got outside, the work was meaningful, and they could both see, share, and enjoy the fruits of their labor.


Dietary Considerations

Drying Corn at Laguna, New Mexico, circa 1916, courtesy Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture 1918

All asylums operated within budgets, and most had to make difficult choices about which services and personnel to provide and which to skimp on or delete. One reason (among several) that early asylums used patient labor was because it saved money that could then be used elsewhere. Asylum gardens were extremely important to some institutions; they often subsidized food allotments which would have often been inadequate. Dr. Harvey Black, superintendent of Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, wanted three things for his asylum: good food, comfortable clothing, and enough ward attendants. His facility and many others, raised corn, potatoes, and a variety of vegetables; some institutions were able to tend fruit orchards as well.

Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians helped raise these same items, but wintertime presented a problem for them as it did for the general population. Potatoes, corn, and other starchy vegetables were easy enough to store, but fresh greens and fruits would have disappeared for the winter. Some dried fruits may have been available, but records do not seem to indicate much activity in the way of canning or drying at the asylum. A diet of meat and primarily starchy vegetables could have led to many different health issues, and patients at the Canton Asylum seem to have had a leaning toward sugar addiction. One inspector wrote in 1916: “The only suggestion that I would make, with reference to the ration allowance, is that the supply of sugar be increased. The patients, for some reason, consume more sugar than normal people . . . I have observed this abnormal craving for sugar by patients in other asylums.”

Sugar cravings can indicate thyroid problems, yeast infections,adrenal overload, depression, and a variety of other conditions.The inspector’s comments indicate that something physical was probably going on with the patients at Canton Asylum in addition to any mental issues they may have had.

Women's Sewing Room at Maryland Hospital for the Insane, 1910s, courtesy Spring Grove Hospital Center

Men's Industrial Shop at Maryland Hospital for the Insane, circa 1900, courtesy Spring Grove Hospital Center



Meals at Asylums

Dr. Harvey Black

The quality of food at asylums ranged from the piece of bread and five prunes Nelly Bly received on Blackwell’s Island to the abundance of milk and eggs sickly patients received at St. Elizabeths. Many institutions made a point of offering enticing food to patients who had problems eating; one woman at Hilltop recounted the generous breakfast of oatmeal, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, milk and juice, and the evening pot of chocolate brought to her by staff.

Physicians generally considered it positive when patients put on weight. Notes on a woman named Katie at the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Virginia said that she had “fattened up some.” Of another woman there, the physician wrote that she had “gained flesh and strength.” Of others, doctors noted that patients had “improved in flesh” or had “grown stout.” There never seemed to be any attempts to help patients lose weight, even if they were described as “quite stout.”

The superintendent at Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Harvey Black, wrote in his first report that three things were necessary to help patients recover and go home: a sufficient quantity and variety of good food, neat, comfortable clothing, and a sufficient number of efficient ward attendants. He spoke of a planned orchard of 400 apple trees, peach and pear trees, grapes, and berries, and stated that even more than that was needed. If nourishing food did have curative powers, Black seemed to want to provide it.

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum

St. Elizabeths, N-building, courtesy Library of Congress