John M. Galt

John Minson Galt II was Superintendent at the Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia from 1841 until his early death in 1862. Established in 1773, the Public Hospital for Persons of Inane and Disordered Minds (as it was then called) was the first institution exclusively devoted to the care and treatment of the mentally ill in British North America. Galt was responsible for many changes to the hospital, making for a very different institution to the one where his grandfather had worked as attending physician in 1793. While in the past patients had been subjected to a series of brutal treatments (being plunged into cold water, "blistering" and drawing blood, electric shocks) Galt implemented a policy of "moral" treatment, in line with developments taking place in Britain and France. This limited the use of restraint and placed the emphasis on responding to the insane with respect and compassion.

A voracious reader and writer (in both English and French), Galt played a key role in introducing ideas from Europe to America, in areas ranging from architectural design to hospital management. In his more personal writings-most notably his annual Superintendent's Reports-Galt presented his own ideas about insanity with great verve and passion. Informed by his wide reading-everything from Sophocles and Shakespeare, to popular journals-it was here that Galt mused on the slippery distinction between the mad and sane, and speculated on the causes for increased insanity in contemporary life. Galt's major innovations included his belief that the insane should be reintegrated back into society and his prescription of drugs, including opium, for medicinal purposes. Indeed, it has been claimed that Galt's early death in 1862 was caused by an overdose of opium taken after the Union Army seized Williamsburg. As this shows, not all of Galt's ideas were wise, and we cannot take everything he says in the very public forum of his Annual Reports for granted. Some fitting final words on Galt's life are provided by Shomer Zwelling.

Deeply committed, sensitive, and highly motivated, Galt sought to give the hospital a thoroughly professional mode of operations, a new spirit, and an improved image. Although he was frustrated and exhausted by the end of his life, he had not forsaken his belief in the importance of innovation and compassion in caring for the mentally ill. Sympathetic with the plight of both doctors and patients, Galt was insistently honest in assessing the limitations of the hospital, its staff, and the scope of contemporary medical knowledge. An intelligent man who struggled to understand the experiences of his patients, Galt remained baffled and perplexed by the problems enveloping the mentally ill. Galt's commitment to kindness and his intellectual honesty, rather than his effectiveness, were his most noteworthy accomplishments. 31

See the Complete Report for 1857.
See the Bibliography.