Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital

AHP readers will be interested in a recent book on the history of Washington, DC’s Saint Elizabeths Hospital: Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital by Martin Summers. The book is described as follows:

From the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries, Saint Elizabeths Hospital was one of the United States’ most important institutions for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Founded in 1855 to treat insane soldiers and sailors as well as civilian residents in the nation’s capital, the institution became one of the country’s preeminent research and teaching psychiatric hospitals. From the beginning of its operation, Saint Elizabeths admitted black patients, making it one of the few American asylums to do so. This book is a history of the hospital and its relationship to Washington, DC’s African American community. It charts the history of Saint Elizabeths from its founding to the late-1980s, when the hospital’s mission and capabilities changed as a result of deinstitutionalization, and its transfer from the federal government to the District of Columbia. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including patient case files, the book demonstrates how race was central to virtually every aspect of the hospital’s existence, from the ways in which psychiatrists understood mental illness and employed therapies to treat it to the ways that black patients experienced their institutionalization. The book argues that assumptions about the existence of distinctive black and white psyches shaped the therapeutic and diagnostic regimes in the hospital and left a legacy of poor treatment of African American patients, even after psychiatrists had begun to reject racialist conceptions of the psyche. Yet black patients and their communities asserted their own agency and exhibited a “rights consciousness” in large and small ways, from agitating for more equal treatment to attempting to manage the therapeutic experience.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: “Humanity Requires All the Relief Which Can Be Afforded”: The Birth of the Federal Asylum
  • Chapter 2: The Paradox of Enlightened Care: Saint Elizabeths in the Era of Moral Treatment, 1855-1877
  • Chapter 3: “From Slave to Citizen”: Race, Insanity, and Institutionalization in Post-Reconstruction Washington, DC, 1877-1900
  • Chapter 4: Care and the Color Line: Race, Rights, and the Therapeutic Experience, 1877-1900
  • Chapter 5: “Mechanisms of the Negro Mind”: Race and Dynamic Psychiatry at Saint Elizabeths, 1903-1937
  • Chapter 6: “He Is Psychotic and Always Will Be”: Racial Ambivalence and the Limits of Therapeutic Optimism, 1903-1937
  • Chapter 7: Mental Hygiene and the Limits of Reform: Saint Elizabeths in the Community, 1903-1937
  • Chapter 8: “An Example for the Rest of the Nation”: Challenging Racial Injustice at Saint Elizabeths, 1910-1955
  • Chapter 9: Whither the Negro Psyche: Integration and Its Aftermath, 1945-1970
  • Chapter 10: From Model to Emblem: Community Mental Health and Deinstitutionalization, 1963-1987
  • Conclusion

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.