Repository logo

Into the Void: A Crossborder Comparison of the Mental Asylum on the American and Canadian Frontier



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title






Degree Level



This dissertation examines the history of the mental asylum in comparative context. It presents a cross-border study that analyzes an institution in Washington State (Western Washington Hospital) with one in the Province of Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan Hospital, North Battleford) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars and others close to the asylum have described it as a symbol of modernity, a policing institution, and a medical structure. To make these claims they have looked almost exclusively at institutions in eastern Canada and the United States. This work traces those ideas as they moved west. It shows that the superintendents of these regions borrowed established eastern asylum principles in an effort to assert their own modernity and medical authority with appreciation to the civilizing missions of the respective nation states. They merged the political goals of the institution and their government with social and medical realities and presented a system of asylum-based care that helped them medicalize the understanding of insanity in their respective hospitals. This study also addresses how superintendents unconsciously let regional social ideals of assimilation, the closing of the frontier, statehood, beliefs of what constituted a proper society, urban expansion, and the ideal of citizenship influence their treatment of people with mental disorders. Despite external influences, physicians in the western asylum strove to implement innovative asylum-based therapies. These practices allowed them to move past much of the stigma that had developed against the asylum and their patients. The result was that they showed insanity was ostensibly a curative condition and a fraction of people judged insane were able to resume normal functioning, however fraught, and return to their communities. Using a lens of local and transnational ideas about deviance and madness, this study ultimately argues that the asylum offers an additional gauge to interpret societies as they established their identities; it is a microcosm of the society it serves. The examination of these institutions presents a better understanding of the regions in which they are situated.



Mental Asylum, Mental Health, Canada, United States, Cross Border Comparison, Society, Medicine, Frontier



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






Part Of