The March 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology has just gone online. In this month’s Time Capsule section, Ellen Holtzman describes the private asylum system that developed in the United States in the late 19th century and continued into the 20th century. Holtzman pays particular attention to Boris Sidis a medical doctor who also earned a PhD from Harvard under William James. As Holtzman describes,
In 1910, Sidis opened a private asylum, the Sidis Psychotherapeutic Institute, on the Portsmouth, N.H., estate of a wealthy New Englander. Hoping for referrals from psychologically minded colleagues, he announced the opening of his hospital in the Psychological Bulletin and advertised it in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, which he had founded. The ad noted that he would treat patients by “applying his special psychopathological and clinical methods of examination, observation and treatment.”
Sidis touted the luxury of the asylum’s accommodations and setting, even more than the availability of psychotherapy. “Beautiful grounds, private parks, rare trees, greenhouses, sun parlors, palatial rooms, luxuriously furnished private baths, private farm products,” wrote Sidis in his brochure describing the institute. Moreover, he offered his patients the somatic treatments of hydrotherapy and electrical stimulation, as did his less psychologically minded colleagues. The emphasis on luxury combined with the availability of the popular somatic treatments, even in an institution created by an “advanced” thinker like Sidis, suggests that wealthy patients expected a traditional, medical approach to treatment….
As the Sidis Institute illustrates, life in the small, private asylums contrasted sharply with conditions in the late 19th-century public institutions. Patients at public hospitals were usually involuntarily committed, and they typically displayed violent or suicidal behavior before their hospitalization. The public hospitals were overcrowded and dirty, with bars on the windows. The staff was poorly paid and frequently treated patients harshly. Given these terrible conditions, well-to-do patients used their wealth to take shelter in a physician’s home and escape the fate of the poor. Not surprisingly, the cost of a private hospitalization was steep. Sidis, for example, charged $50 to $100 and “upwards” a week ($50 would be equivalent to roughly $1,000 today). “Bills are payable in advance,” he informed his prospective patients.
The entire article can here read online here.