Tag Archives: Dr. William Hammond

The Mechanical Treatment of Insanity

Kings County Lunatic Asylum in Flatbush, NY

Kings County Lunatic Asylum in Flatbush, NY

Dr. William Hammond (who was not a fan of insane asylums) was appalled at the widespread use of restraints in U.S. facilities, comparing these institutions unfavorably with those in England which had just about abandoned the practice. He wrote: “At present [1883] ignorant and brutal attendants, some of them selected from the very lowest class, can, at their option, from whim, caprice, anger, or any other inadequate cause, order or place a lunatic in the camisole, crib, or other mechanical restraint.”

Hammond did not necessarily argue that all restraints be abolished, but his suggestions followed the course that British alienists used when they began to eliminate restraints. For patients who always took off their clothes, for instance, attendants could use “strong dresses which were secured around the waist with a leathern belt, fastened by a small lock.” Patients who were violent toward themselves or others, could wear “a dress, of which the sleeves terminated in a stuffed glove without divisions for the fingers and thumb.

Athens Female Ward, 1893, courtesy Athens County Historical Society and Museum

Athens Female Ward, 1893, courtesy Athens County Historical Society and Museum

One of Hammond’s suggestions to the state of New York, which asked his advice as it investigated the management of its insane asylums, was to keep the decision to use restraints out of the hands of attendants. Only the medical officer should decide to use mechanical means of control, and Hammond said that even with that safeguard in place, every order for restraint should be documented in a record book. That book, in turn, should be open to inspection.

Postcard of the Athens Lunatic Asylum

Postcard of the Athens Lunatic Asylum

The only two asylums in the U.S. which did not use restraints at all at the time of Hammond’s writing were the Kings County Asylum at Flatbush, Long Island and one in Athens, Ohio (Athens Asylum for the Insane) which he did not specifically name.

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Treating Morbid Impusles

Surgeon General William Hammond

Surgeon General William Hammond

In A Treatise on Insanity (1883), author William Hammond (former surgeon-general of the Army) described various cases of intellectual objective morbid impulses and how he had treated them. In one case, a young man developed an overwhelming desire to throw vitriolic acid over women’s beautiful gowns. He considered his actions “immoral and degrading,” but told Dr. Hammond that “a handsome dress acts upon me very much as I suppose a piece of red cloth does on an infuriated bull: I must attack it.” The young man had managed to throw vitriol on three women’s dresses without being caught, but wanted desperately to stop doing it. He could not determine where the impulse came from, but simply found it impossible to control.

Tilden's Bromide of Calcium

Tilden’s Bromide of Calcium

Dr. Hammond examined the man, and could find no disease other than “wakefulness.” Hammond prescribed a bromide of calcium (a sedative) and “insisted on his removing himself from further temptation by taking a sea voyage on a sailing vessel upon which there were no women passengers.” The young man did so, and came back after three or four month free of his impulse to ruin women’s dresses with vitriol.

According to Hammond, an intellectual objective morbid impulse is an idea that occurs to a person which is contrary to his sense of right and wrong, urging the person to do something “repugnant to his conscience and wishes.” As in the case of the young man just described, such an impulse “if yielded to . . . is often of a character as to demand the serious consideration of society.” In his case, the man would probably have ended up in an asylum if he had not had his condition nipped in the bud.

Dr. Hammond's Book

Dr. Hammond’s Book

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