Blog Posts - Medical History



Going Insane in the West

People went West for many reasons, but most carried a dream of creating a better life for themselves in this new, undeveloped territory. Homesteading was advertised as attractively as possible, and though emigrants may have prepared for it physically...

Prairie Madness

Life on the edges of the Western frontier was difficult, and by necessity, attracted mostly rugged, committed people who believed they could carve a good life for themselves in these untested regions. Despite the [general] sense of hope and adventure...

What Could Go Wrong?

Simple as it was, the rest cure ended up being quite controversial, since the majority of its patients were women. Dr. Mitchell’s theory about the rest cure centered around the belief that women were weak and could be hurt by too much education...

The Rest Cure

The rest cure was probably the most fashionable of responses to a condition of “nerves” or neurasthenia (see last three posts). Only the wealthy could afford such a complete withdrawal from obligations or work, let alone take on the obvio...

Insanity a Privileged Disease?

Though insanity would never be welcomed by either victims or their families, it was perhaps a comfortable notion to think that it primarily afflicted “civilized” people and nations. Nervous diseases did not affect “savages.” F...

Insanity and Physical Causes

Alienists had long pondered the causes of insanity, and attributed some often-laughable (to modern sensibilities) reasons for its onset. They realized that sudden shocks, grief, worry, and other emotional traumas could at least temporarily affect a p...

Industrialization and Mental Illness

Americans may have enjoyed many of the new inventions and opportunities the dawning industrial age offered, but many were also thrown off balance by the increasingly fast pace of the late 1800s. Dr. George Beard noticed that Americans were having dif...

New Century, Old Ways

Life was difficult around the turn of the twentieth century. A simple scratch or sore throat that developed into strep could still cause death since there were no effective antibiotics, most homes had no indoor plumbing, and heating fuel was dirty an...

Tiny Steps

Most Europeans settlers believed that their respective cultures were superior to Native American ones, and set about imposing their own ideas upon native peoples as soon as they were able to do so. This thinking led to many tragedies, including reser...

Paperwork

Running an insane asylum involved a great deal of administrative work, and it is no wonder that some records were not as meticulous as inspectors and latter-day researchers would have liked. Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent of the Canton Asylum for I...

A Difficult Life for All

Though patients undoubtedly had wretched experiences at most asylums, the life of an attendant was also difficult. Even in the first decades of the twentieth century, it was usual for attendants and other staff (including physicians) to reside at the...

A Patient’s Work is Never Done

Insane asylums used patient labor for both occupational therapy and cost-containment (see last post). However, that labor didn’t always start after the facility had been completed and simply needed to be maintained. Asylum administrators often...

Who Says You’re Crazy?

One of the major problems with the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was that commitment rules were so lax. Like most asylums, there were patients incarcerated because they were inconvenient to others or created problems for civil authorities, but the...

Alienists’ Diagnoses Were Never Foolproof

Alienists’ assessments of their patients’ mental conditions could be suspect at the best of times. They were particularly suspect when alienists dealt with people who did not fit the norms of an Anglo-centric society. Newly arrived immigr...

Patient Histories

An important innovation in the treatment of the insane was to obtain a history of patients’ past life and behavior. This allowed doctors to see how much the patient was deviating from previous behavior that was “normal” for that per...

Appropriate Care

Though some patients may have considered their stay at an asylum as a period of respite from the cares of the world, most patients just wanted out. Some understood that they needed help and could agree with the commitment decision, but even these pat...

Policies and Procedures

No asylums had an overabundance of staff, and asylum administrators walked a fine line between doing what was necessary and convenient for their personnel, and what was best for patients. A 1906 article in The American Journal of Insanity discussed t...

Motherhood and Mania

The “baby blues” or its more severe form, postpartum depression, afflicted women well before the modern era. Asylum notes indicate many cases of melancholy in new mothers, as well as other types of difficulties in adjusting to a birth. In...

Care For the Body as Well as the Mind

Though insanity had been recognized since the country was founded and asylums (both private and state-funded) had been around for almost a hundred years, doctors had not instituted any systematic training for asylum attendants. Attendants were the fr...

Matters of Size

In 1903, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians‘ first year of operation, the American Medico-Psychological Association (the main U.S. organization for psychologists) met in Washington, DC. During opening remarks, visitors were reminded of the ci...


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