Blog Posts - Medical History



Inspection Results

The two federal institutions for the insane (St. Elizabeths and the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians) were investigated several times. In 1926, the comptroller general of the United States listed his findings concerning the investigation into St. Eli...

Insanity is Lucrative

Early alienists tried to keep their profession closed from outsiders, both to maintain prestige and to ensure adequate salaries. They were very successful for many years, and superintendents of insane asylums were among the highest paid physicians in...

Arbitrary Commitment

Alienists were notorious for their self-confident belief that they knew what was best for anyone with mental illness. In an essay from the July,1868 issue of the American Journal of Insanity, the (anonymous) author makes a case for doing away with le...

Intervention in Insanity

Alienists (early psychiatrists) believed in actively treating insanity. Most believed that it was beneficial to a patient to completely remove him or her from familiar surroundings; the change would allow new thought patterns and behaviors to form mo...

Other Ills at the Asylum

Though there is no mention of any smallpox epidemics at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, the threat of this terrible disease was very real. Smallpox had devastated Native American communities once Europeans arrived, since native peoples had no i...

Grimes Was Not Impressed

When Dr. John Maurice Grimes inspected mental institutions in the U.S. (see last two posts), he discovered that the federal asylum in Washington, DC, (St. Elizabeths) was overcrowded. It had a rated capacity of 3,700 patients and an actual patient po...

Grimes Was Not Impressed

When Dr. John Maurice Grimes inspected mental institutions in the U.S. (see last two posts), he discovered that the federal asylum in Washington, DC, (St. Elizabeths) was overcrowded. It had a rated capacity of 3,700 patients and an actual patient po...

Federal Facilities for the Insane

When Dr. John Maurice Grimes published Institutional Care of Mental Patients in the United States at his own expense (see last post), he was able to speak freely about his findings. His comments about Veterans Administration hospitals which treated m...

Federal Facilities for the Insane

When Dr. John Maurice Grimes published Institutional Care of Mental Patients in the United States at his own expense (see last post), he was able to speak freely about his findings. His comments about Veterans Administration hospitals which treated m...

Misery on Display

Most patients, of course, did not want to be in an asylum, and moving into one very likely added to whatever problem that had brought them there. Doctors’ management of their conditions may or may not have alleviated their distress (see last po...

A Delicate Balance

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, befo...

What Do You Learn?

Modern researchers sometimes pass judgment on whether or not a person should have been committed to an insane asylum–but It isn’t always an easy call. Reading patient notes can lead one to believe that disruptiveness rather than insanity...

So Easy to Leave

Certain patients with mental illness were more difficult to manage than others, and families often grew tired of coping with a disruptive member who perhaps drained them physically and emotionally. An asylum offered a wonderful solution to the proble...

Commit and Forget

Spectacular cases of involuntary commitment have found their way into newspapers and books and are interesting to read about, but in reality, many families were reluctant to commit their loved ones to an asylum. Authorities hoped that their magnifice...

Commit and Forget

Spectacular cases of involuntary commitment have found their way into newspapers and books and are interesting to read about, but in reality, many families were reluctant to commit their loved ones to an asylum. Authorities hoped that their magnifice...

Who Watches the Watchers?

The insane asylum at Yankton, SD (see last post) was typical of its time. It had a board  of  men in a trustee relationship who were charged with watching over the running of the asylum. Their duties were varied and wide-ranging, and it is likely t...

Who Watches the Watchers?

The insane asylum at Yankton, SD (see last post) was typical of its time. It had a board  of  men in a trustee relationship who were charged with watching over the running of the asylum. Their duties were varied and wide-ranging, and it is likely t...

Water Treatments

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. Ho...

Water Treatments

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. Ho...

Water Therapy

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...


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