The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry, 1840–1880

By Wendy Gonaver

268 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 5 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4844-6
    Published: March 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4843-9
    Published: March 2019
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4845-3
    Published: February 2019

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Though the origins of asylums can be traced to Europe, the systematic segregation of the mentally ill into specialized institutions occurred in the United States only after 1800, just as the struggle to end slavery took hold. In this book, Wendy Gonaver examines the relationship between these two historical developments, showing how slavery and ideas about race shaped early mental health treatment in the United States, especially in the South. She reveals these connections through the histories of two asylums in Virginia: the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg, the first in the nation; and the Central Lunatic Asylum in Petersburg, the first created specifically for African Americans. Eastern Lunatic Asylum was the only institution to accept both slaves and free blacks as patients and to employ slaves as attendants.

Drawing from these institutions' untapped archives, Gonaver reveals how slavery influenced ideas about patient liberty, about the proper relationship between caregiver and patient, about what constituted healthy religious belief and unhealthy fanaticism, and about gender. This early form of psychiatric care acted as a precursor to public health policy for generations, and Gonaver's book fills an important gap in the historiography of mental health and race in the nineteenth century.

About the Author

Wendy Gonaver is archives assistant at the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives at Chapman University.
For more information about Wendy Gonaver, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

“Examines race relations from 1840 to 18880 in a Virginia insane asylum where slaves worked as attendants (and were admitted as patients alongside whites).”--Choice Reviews

"Based on impeccable research and a deep excavation of the surviving records, Gonaver has rightly identified an important subject of historical investigation: the ways in which Southern institutions contributed to the development of modern American medicine."--Jim Downs, author of Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

"Gonaver's meticulous attention to both individual patients and broader patterns of treatment make this a valuable study of nineteenth-century asylums. The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry, 1840–1880 reveals how the key institutions of societal power--slavery, race, religion, marriage, and medical science--shaped both daily practices of care and debates over appropriate therapy."--Sharla Fett, Occidental College