Date Awarded


Document Type

Dissertation -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Leisa D Meyer


Modern psychiatry in the United States emerged at the same time as debate about slavery intensified and dominated public discourse, contributing to dramatic denominational schisms and to the greater visibility of women in the public sphere. as the only institution to accept slaves and free blacks as patients, and to employ slaves as attendants, The Eastern Lunatic Asylum of Williamsburg, Virginia, offers unique insights into the ways in which gender, race and religion transformed psychiatry from an obscure enterprise in the early nineteenth century to a medical specialty with wide-reaching cultural authority by the twentieth century.;Utilizing a variety of sources, including a collection of un-catalogued and largely unexamined papers, this dissertation employs interdisciplinary methods to explore the meaning of interracial medical encounters, and the role of the asylum in promoting rational religion and normalizing domestic violence.;The dissertation begins by examining the life and writings of asylum Superintendent John M. Galt, whose experience at the head of an interracial institution led him to reject proposals for separate institutions for whites and blacks and to promote the cottage system of outpatient care. The following chapter addresses the labor of enslaved attendants, without whom the asylum could not have functioned and for whom moral rectitude and spiritual equality appear to have been the ethical foundation of care-giving. Discussion of ethics and spirituality, in turn, prompts consideration of the role of religion in asylum care. The association of enthusiastic religion with slaves and with abolitionism contributed to the regulation of religious expression as a common feature of asylum medicine. Religious evangelism was viewed by hospital administrators as a symptom of insanity, while religious rationalism was enshrined as normative and, paradoxically, as secular.;Asylum medicine also normalized domestic violence by treating the social problem of violence, from wife beating to the rape of slave women, as the medical pathology of individuals. In so doing, the asylum undermined the religious authority from which many women derived comfort, meaning and purpose; and overemphasized the role of female sexual and reproductive organs as an alleged cause of insanity. Ultimately, the struggle over efforts to contain interracial alliances, women's autonomy and enthusiastic religious expression coalesced in the state's promotion of eugenics in the early twentieth century.



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