The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry, 1840–1880

By Wendy Gonaver

268 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 5 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4844-6
    Published: March 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4843-9
    Published: March 2019
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4845-3
    Published: February 2019

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Awards & distinctions

2021 Francis B. Simkins Award, Southern Historical Association

Though the origins of asylums can be traced to Europe, the systematic segregation of the mentally ill into specialized institutions occurred in the United States only after 1800, just as the struggle to end slavery took hold. In this book, Wendy Gonaver examines the relationship between these two historical developments, showing how slavery and ideas about race shaped early mental health treatment in the United States, especially in the South. She reveals these connections through the histories of two asylums in Virginia: the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg, the first in the nation; and the Central Lunatic Asylum in Petersburg, the first created specifically for African Americans. Eastern Lunatic Asylum was the only institution to accept both slaves and free blacks as patients and to employ slaves as attendants.

Drawing from these institutions' untapped archives, Gonaver reveals how slavery influenced ideas about patient liberty, about the proper relationship between caregiver and patient, about what constituted healthy religious belief and unhealthy fanaticism, and about gender. This early form of psychiatric care acted as a precursor to public health policy for generations, and Gonaver's book fills an important gap in the historiography of mental health and race in the nineteenth century.

About the Author

Wendy Gonaver is archives assistant at the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives at Chapman University.
For more information about Wendy Gonaver, visit the Author Page.


“Provides a fascinating glimpse of the origins of humane treatment of the mentally ill and a sound indictment of nineteenth-century pseudoscientific thought.”--Choice

“Eminently readable .  .  .  . A great addition to the literature on asylums.”--Journal of Social History

"Gonaver's monograph is a truly illuminating addition to canons of American medical history and racialized society, one that will inspire and fascinate students and scholars of slavery and madness in the nineteenth century."--Journal of the Civil War Era

The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry is a valuable institutional history, in addition to the contribution it makes to the history of race and medicine.”--Black Perspectives

“This is a timely, intriguing, and deeply researched social history, telling the story of how a racially hierarchical, internally segregated, asylum set at the heart of chattel slavery was absorbed into perhaps an even bleaker carceral system following the Civil War.”--Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Based on impeccable research and a deep excavation of the surviving records, Gonaver has rightly identified an important subject of historical investigation: the ways in which Southern institutions contributed to the development of modern American medicine."--Jim Downs, author of Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction