March 19, 2004

The Institutional Confinement of ‘Idiot’ Children in Twentieth-century Canada: the case of the Orillia Asylum, 1900-1950

The history of intellectual disability in the Anglo-American context has long remained in the shadow cast by the history of madness and psychiatry and, more recently, physical disability. As Anne Digby contends: “Historically, the social marginality of people with learning disabilities has been mirrored by their academic marginality.” While this academic marginality has recently been diminished by the emerging field of disability history in the United States, Britain and Canada, the portrayal of Canadian asylums for people with intellectual disabilities has continued to be understood by historians (and thus society) in a traditional paradigm -- as “dumping grounds” used by families, physicians and the state for unwanted and unproductive members of society.

This interpretation stands in contrast to recent developments in the history of the ‘lunatic’ asylum which have examined the short-term use of mental hospitals, the strategic role of families in the committal process, and the persistence of community care. The detailed investigation of institutional case files, as seen in the work of Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, Mary-Ellen Kelm, Geoffrey Reaume, James Moran and David Wright, has allowed for a patient- and family-centred perspective on rise of the lunatic asylum. All of these recent works have responded to the lack of investigation into the social, medical and behavioural characteristics of patients, factors influencing admittance to an institution, and the role that families played in the identification of lunacy, the decision to commit a family member, and how families negotiated treatment, leisure and care while their kin were institutionalized.

My dissertation hopes to take these new interpretative perspectives and apply them to the history of the idiot asylum. In Ontario, four principal institutions for ‘lunatics’ were established in the second half of the nineteenth century: in Toronto, Kingston, London and Hamilton. For ‘idiot’ children and adults, by contrast, the province constructed a separate institution - the Orillia Asylum for Idiots (now the Huronia Regional Centre). Between its opening in 1876 and 1950, Orillia accepted almost 10,000 people with intellectual disabilities for admission, many for life. In contrast to the dominant historical view of ‘idiot’ asylums in Canada, I will argue that Orillia was often used as only one option of many open to families, and was often used as a last resort after numerous years of familial and community care. The decision to apply for admission to the asylum was often triggered by increasingly difficult behavioural patterns, family (usually maternal) illness, poverty, or seeking educational or occupational training for children. Examining closely individual case files, I will reinterpret the relationships between confined children, family members and the formal medical (in this case, psychiatric) institution. I will also compare and contrast the modes of treatment and care that existed within and without the medical institution.

Therefore, following these historiographical developments, this research project proposes several hypotheses, all of which reinterpret the confinement and care of idiot children in twentieth-century Canada: (1) that family members played a central role in the identification of their kin’s developmental disability; (2) that family members petitioned for asylum committal, influenced diagnosis and even aspects of care, and decided when children would be discharged; and (3) that social class, race, gender, the severity of the child’s disability all affected the family’s ability to influence admission and medical treatment.

The archival research concentrates on a systematic 1 in 5 sampling of the approximately 8,025 patients admitted during 1900-1950 (n=1,605). These case files are a key focus for historical enquiry since they contain admission and discharge summaries, medical reports, clinical records, treatment reports and, more importantly, correspondence between family members and their confined child, and also with the superintendent of the asylum. It will demonstrate how family members, and sometimes the children themselves, negotiated aspects of institutional life. Furthermore, it will explore how class, race, gender and severity of disability affected the ability to carry out these negotiations. Finally, it will investigate how these factors influenced the relationship between family members with the institution’s superintendent, staff psychiatrists, and other medical and non-medical staff. It challenges the arguments by other historians about the ‘hegemonic’ control physicians had in the process of confinement and shows a much more equal relationship between the institutional personnel and family members. Through this type of examination, a new social history of care inside and outside of the asylum of people with intellectual disabilities will emerge.

By probing the relationships between confined patients, their families and the Orillia Asylum this dissertation will provide insight into how medical professionals and lay people characterized childhood disability and how they understood the origins, behaviours and treatment practices. It will illuminate the historical understanding of medical and lay attitudes towards the nature of intellectual disability, its aetiology, and the behaviours associated with it. Furthermore, it will construct an understanding of medical treatment given to these children relative to their characteristics and behaviours. In doing so, not only will information be gathered about treatment inside the asylum, but also through these files, information drawn will include treatment prior to confinement. A recent research paper presented at the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine (n=221 case files) confirms that family members often sent letters indicating prior treatment for their child, including, massage therapy, visits to specialists in the United States, and castration. My dissertation will explore these treatment modalities in detail.

Posted by Jessa at 05:00 PM

March 05, 2004

African-American migration for education

Another project I'd love someone to do (and John Rury is doing part of it right now): what strategies did African American families use to increase educational attainment at mid-century? In particular, is there any way to quantify the migration of teens to relatives living in Southern (or Nothern) cities as a way to acquire a high-school education?

Posted by sdorn at 07:55 PM

Holocaust education as curriculum history

Another project that I'd love to see done: someone who looks at Holocaust education in the 20th century as an example of curriculum. According to European historians who were at a panel at the Social Science History Association meeting, there really was nothing we would call an education about the Holocaust or the Nazis right after World War II, and its development (especially in colleges) is relatively recent. I'm curious about the alleged gap after WW2 and wonder what else might be hidden in that, as a curriculum-history topic, given the topic's various overtones.

Posted by sdorn at 07:53 PM

February 23, 2004

New Interpretation of American common school movement

I am working on a popular history of the beginnings of the common school movement in the U.S. Most of my research is done and my tentative conclusions differ from most of the interpretations that I have read to date. My findings are probably closest to Carl Kaestle (Pillars of the Republic). I extend his focus from Protestant ideology to examine the importance of Calvinist beliefs, since most of the key leaders of the movement in the Ohio valley from 1815-1855 were Presbyterian.

My findings differ in four ways. My narrative is more western - the population center of the U.S. was dramatically moving west in the period. It is more rural -urban, industrial America was relatively small in comparison to rural, agrarian America, even at the end of the period I study. And the common school movement that I have studied is far more religiously-motivated than some of secular reasons posited to explain the first free public schools. The fourth reason is that I have "mapped" the political balance of power in several key states onto the passage of key legislation in those states and found a good
correlation between the two. It appears that a dedicated, small minority of evangelical Christians were able to push through enabling legislation at times when their political power gave them the most leverage. When their power waned too much, educational legislation was reversed.

While my work is intended for a popular history audience, I would like the opportunity to receive comments, criticism, suggestions from scholars who work in this area. At present, I am working up proposals for papers at the History of Education Society meeting and the Midwest History of Education Society meeting. If any one has any suggestions, please let me know, either on or off the list.

Posted by Thomas_Hagedorn at 03:16 PM

January 29, 2004

Chinese Immigrant Children

Research Project: I am conducting research on Chinese immigrant children in San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th century. I am especially interested in the effects of Chinese exclusion legislation in limiting their entry into the United States as well as the experiences of those children who were successful in settling in the city. I will be examining the role of these children in the local labor market, city educational institutions and the Chinatown community. Any references or source suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by wjorae at 09:39 PM

Lists of Colleges that have Closed or Changed their Names

Researcher: Ray Brown

Project Description: Lists of colleges and universities that have closed, merged, or changed their names.

A set of lists is offered at The intent of the exercise is to offer a place where interested individuals can check to see if an institution is now closed or if the name has been changed due to a merger or for other reasons.

The entire list is available in both .html (2,000+ KB) and .pdf (500+ KB) formats. These files include over 2,500 institutions. Separate files are included for each of the states and the District of Columbia in the United States. A list of international institutions has also been added recently.

Each entry includes the name of the institution, location, dates of operation if they are known, affiliation, brief historical sketch, and the sources of the information.

The lists are maintained as a hobby and any updates, corrections, links to additional information, or suggestions to improve the usefulness of the list(s) is appreciated. Also, any contributions or suggestions from those with knowledge of institutions outside the United States are especially welcome!!

The Future? It would be great to include information about the location of academic records for specific institutions and to convert all the information to a database that would allow more flexible searching. Unfortunately, I may have to retire before this becomes a reality!!

Posted by RayBrown at 05:19 PM

Landscape of child caring institutions in Rhode Island

This research projects attempts to inventory and examine the array of orphanages,foundling homes, infant asylums, and other specialized institutions across a number of variables including types of children accepted, educational policies, management, terms of residence, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Posted by sweetfern at 04:45 PM

Needed: historiography and educational history

After the recent spate of posts on H-Education on presentism (see the January 2004 log for the posts), I've been confirmed in a few hesitant beliefs over the last few years:

  1. There is a crying need for good historiography that's accessible to the general public; and
  2. The history of education and childhood would be a good vehicle, because everyone thinks they know something about the time since they've grown up.

I wrote a sabbatical proposal a year ago for such a project, but after it didn't get funded I'm now on to other things that have popped up since.

Posted by sdorn at 01:55 PM

January 01, 2004

History of special education in urban South

Researcher: Sherman Dorn

Project description: A history of the development of special education in several cities in the urban South. Work has already been done on Nashville from the late 1930s through 1990.

Writings: A project report to the federal government is available through ERIC. An article appeared in the History of Education Quarterly, Fall 2002. Conference papers are available upon request from the researcher. I hope to write a book and expanded the scope beyond Nashville for a comparative perspective.

Additional comments: Nashville had some interesting dynamics (having a university research program from the early 1950s, an active parent group, and a moderately activist city school system), but I need to look at more cities. I'd welcome suggestions for other Southern cities based on specific knowledge of archival materials or individuals who might be interviewed for the project.

Time scope: Aaarrggghhh! Don't ask, please. There are several other items that are higher on my list of priorities, so this is a long-term project.

Posted by sdorn at 09:35 AM