Tag Archives: National Committee for Mental Hygiene

Room for the Shell-Shocked

Main Building, St. Elizabeths, circa 1910-1925, courtesy Library of Congress

In 1917, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (see last post) canvased various hospitals to see where soldiers and sailors could be treated for mental conditions created by the war. They naturally turned to government facilities like veterans’ hospitals and the government’s two existing insane asylums. The larger of these latter facilities, St. Elizabeths, was already charged with the care of insane military members. Its superintendent, Dr. William White, submitted his thoughts on the matter to the Secretary of the Interior, saying that a large influx of insane patients would require a correspondingly large increase in facilities. The plan in place was to ask for statutory authority “to distribute the overflow from the present organization [St. Elizabeths] to the several State hospitals.” Using caution before commitment, White asked how many patients might be expected, and whether or not the Secretary wanted them housed in temporary or semi-permanent structures.

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent at the government’s other insane asylum, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, offered his own thoughts about the ability of St. Elizabeths to care for mentally unstable soldiers. He wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs: “It occurs to me that with the already overcrowded condition at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D. C., it will be impossible for the authorities of that institution to care for the rather sudden accession of cases of mental disease which the present war will necessarily entail. . . . . It is barely possible that the federal government will decide that each State shall care for its own insane. In that event it will be necessary for the State of South Dakota to care for its insane, either at the Asylum at Yankton or otherwise.”

Hummer asked the practical question concerning the number of patients¬† who might need care, and provided his own tentative calculations for the commissioner. Hummer estimated that 20-25 percent of South Dakota’s soldiers and sailors might become incapacitated during the war, and that of that number, ten percent would be mental cases. Therefore, he thought that one-fortieth of the men enlisted from the state would need to be cared for at one of its institutions.

Hummer added: “I am sorry that your Office decided that we should not build the proposed epileptic cottage, as this would have given us additional beds which might have been used for the purpose now in question.”

Insane Asylum at Yankton, South Dakota

Wounded British Soldiers in a Trench, courtesy Library of Congress



Shell Shock

A Shell Shocked Soldier is on the Left

Professionals and laypeople alike have probably always observed that war could affect those who went through it, both physically and mentally. After the Civil War, some people who tried to put their finger on what had changed with returning veterans, discussed the “soldier’s heart” phenomenon. This was a (usually) negative change they saw in their loved ones, which they were sure came from being in a war and exposed to combat. Observers primarily believed that physical changes in the heart were responsible for the changes they saw in the person, though they also believed that pining away for their homes during their period of service could bring on nostalgia-related mental symptoms. During WWI, “shell shock” was a descriptive term for the physical effects constant bombardment took on soldiers engaged in long bouts of trench warfare, but physicians also recognized a mental component that they termed “traumatic neurosis.”

WWI era medical professionals had enough information about war-related mental trauma (now called PTSD) that they anticipated its occurrence. In 1917, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene¬† formed a task group called “the committee on furnishing hospital units for nervous and mental disorders to the United States Government” which began to canvas likely facilities in which to house mentally ill soldiers. Veterans Hospitals were obvious sites, and the committee also contacted the superintendents of the government’s two insane asylums: St. Elizabeths in Washington, DC and the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians in South Dakota.

My next post will examine their responses.

Doctor Attempting to Cure Shell Shock Through Hypnosis

Private Read Was Buried By a Shell in 1917, Which Resulted in Constant Swaying and Nose Wiping