Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Short history of the institutionalization of the insane in Oregon, to 1941


A caller's request for the complete transcript of a speech made by Dorothea Lynde Dix to the Oregon Legislative Assembly "sometime in the mid-1800s" has had us on a hunt this morning, and has led us to a short paper written by Robert J. Gould in 1941 for the Medical History Club of the University of Oregon Medical School. History of the Northwest's first insane asylum chronicles the career of J.C. Hawthorne, superintendent of the Hawthorne Hospital for the Insane, and his often contentious dealings with the state legislature.

In a short aside, the paper does refer to a trip made by Dix to Oregon in 1869 to visit the asylum, but includes no hint as to whether she addressed the legislature at the time. However, Gould does give the reader a sense of the political dimensions of early efforts to isolate and treat the insane. We learn, for example, that while Hawthorne publicly supported proposed legislation to establish a state hospital for the insane, he actively lobbied against the same legislation--and admitted as much during questioning by a congressional committee. Even contemporary observers remarked that "Dr. Hawthorne was too powerful and the state too weak to be able to stand on its own." The truth of this statement can be seen in Hawthorne's state stipend: in 1877, when his hospital housed 230 patients, Hawthorne was being paid $70,000 a year, IN GOLD, which amounted to 52% of the state's income at that time. If anything were to call for congressional questioning, I would think that would!

In conclusion, Gould sums up the history of psychiatric treatment in Oregon in a quick time line:
In 1850, although there were laws originating with the provisional government for the care of the insane, nothing was done about them, and they roamed the country terrorizing women and children and in turn were the subject of ridicule.

In 1860 they were arrested and farmed out to the lowest bidder for use as menial labor.

In 1863, the insane were institutionalized by virtue of a contract with the State of Oregon to Dr. J.C. Hawthorne, who at his own expense had built a hospital for their care.

In 1883, the State Asylum was occupied, and the State took over the care of these insane directly....

Let us look into the past with interest and understanding, and toward the future with hopeful, intelligent efforts to prevent man's greatest misfortune--the loss of reason.

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