Modern Practice, For the Good of All?

With each era, new advancement in medicine were positioned as more efficacious than what went before. In the 18th and 19th centuries the compounding of pharmaceuticals from natural substances–such as the opium poppy–led to more potent drug forms. These substances were extremely effective e for pain management or medical advancement. For example, the development of ether and chloroform allowed doctors to induce a safe “sleep” in patients. during which surgery could be performed. However, the lack of standardization or quality control over these compounds led to wildly varying drug amounts and no directions regarding proper use. Powerfully addictive medicine like laudanum–an opiate–were sold as health tonics purporting to cure everything from nervousness to cough to insomnia.

Advances in medicine not only applied to physical ailments but extended to mental illness as well. Institutions treating mental and physical ailments cropped up at the beginning of the 19th century treating maladies such as “hysteria” and “nervous complaints”. Two such facilities in Westport—The Westport Sanitarium and Dr. McFarland’s Sanitarium—were considered medically cutting-edge for diseases of the mind. These institutions worked toward what was believed to be the betterment of society.  

However, the “betterment of society” was not always about helping the ill—sanitariums were sometimes used to mitigate and control dissidents and outliers who did not conform to the norms of the day. Individuals considered insane were committed to asylums and were often prescribed physically barbaric treatments such as ice baths and shock therapy. Even drastic brain surgery such as the lobotomy which removed portions of the brain to control behavior, were also performed as a method last resort. 

Progressive activists such as Dorothea Dix and investigative journalist Nelly Bly, working on behalf of the mentally ill, shed light on sanitarium practices with their exposés examining medical treatments and conditions at such facilities. They also cast a sharp eye upon confinement of nonconformists for the benefit of those they embarrassed—or challenged. Reformers’ work ultimately forced state and local governments to monitor and place stronger regulations upon these facilities for the protection of patients.  

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