All posts by Jennifer Bazar & Jeremy Burman

AHP & FieldNotes @ Utica’s “Old Main”

This is a special post co-authored by Jeremy Burman and Jennifer Bazar. It is co-hosted at both the Advances in the History of Psychology (AHP) and FieldNotes blogs.

On Thursday we were given a unique opportunity to tour the interior of the building that was originally opened as the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, NY. Built in 1843 to house the state’s so-called insane, the building remains an imposing example of Greek Revival architecture complete with six 48′ tall limestone columns flanking the main entrance.

We began the day in the contemporary institution on the property, the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center. Within the building is displayed a number of historical photographs and furniture (including a decorative fireplace!) from the original building. Among this collection was a large painting of Amariah Brigham, the institution’s first medical superintendent, which had been commissioned by some of the patients. Brigham was extremely influential in asylum history: he was one of the founders of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions (precursor to American Psychiatric Association), launched the American Journal of Insanity (precursor to the American Journal of Psychiatry), and created several unique items including a phrenological hat and the Utica crib. Continue reading AHP & FieldNotes @ Utica’s “Old Main”

Female Forensic Committal in Ireland, 1910–1948

In a recent issue of Social History of Medicine, 21(2), Brendan D. Kelly reports the findings of his examination of the case records for all women admitted to Dublin’s Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum between 1910 and 1948.

The majority of women were Roman Catholic (85.4 per cent) and had a mean age of 36.4 years. The majority were convicted of a crime (85.7 per cent), of whom 75.0 per cent were convicted of killing, most commonly child-killing. The majority of women detained ‘at the Lord Lieutenant’s Pleasure’ (indefinitely) were convicted of murder (51.7 per cent), assault (20.7 per cent) or infanticide (13.8 per cent); mean duration of detention was 5.6 years. The most common diagnoses were ‘mania’ or ‘delusional insanity’ (38.1 per cent) and ‘melancholia’ (23.8 per cent); 7.1 per cent were considered ‘sane’. Following their detention, 28.1 per cent of women were transferred to district asylums and the remainder were released under various different circumstances. In common with similar studies from other countries, these data demonstrate that the fate of these women was largely determined by a combination of societal, legal and medical circumstances, as evidenced by the socio-economic profile of women admitted and changes in admission patterns following the introduction of the Mental Treatment Act 1945. The role of other factors (such as religion) in determining their fate merits further study.

To help build on Kelly’s findings, a selection of readings on “religion and madness” are provided below the fold. Continue reading Female Forensic Committal in Ireland, 1910–1948

“Your very thankful inmate”

Gloucester AsylumIn a recent issue of Social History of Medicine, 21(2), Leonard Smith discovers the gives an account of the experiences of patients at an early county lunatic asylum. His research is based primarily on the letters of patients’ families to the medical superintendent:

Recent studies of the historical development of lunatic asylums have increasingly sought to gain access to the experiences and perspectives of patients and their families. Generally, historians have had to rely mainly on data extracted from admissions records or casebooks. With one or two notable exceptions, little material has survived emanating directly from patients. This article draws largely on a collection of correspondence from the Gloucester Asylum in the period 1827 to 1843. Most of the letters were written by patients’ relatives to the medical superintendent. They offer valuable insights into a range of issues—circumstances that led to admission; the quality of relationships between patients and their families; interactions between community and institution; perceptions of life in the asylum; the processes of recovery, discharge and after-care. It becomes clear that, rather than the asylum being a closed and isolated institution, there was ongoing dialogue between patients, relatives, and medical officers, both to exchange information and also to promote recovery, discharge, and re-settlement in the community.

As Smith highlights, the use of patient records, casebooks, and letters in asylum histories have become increasingly popular in recent years. For those interested in reading more on this topic, I’ve compiled a selection of accounts and histories:

Continue reading “Your very thankful inmate”