Videos

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

Martin Summers (Fellow, 2013–14), Professor of History, Boston College

Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions

Founded in 1855 to treat insane soldiers and sailors as well as civilian residents in the nation’s capital, Saint Elizabeths 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. Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions charts the history of Saint Elizabeths and 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.

Martin Summers 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.