Authors to speak on Fulton asylum Thursday

Wednesday, October 31, 2007 | 9:27 p.m. CDT; updated 8:52 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

COLUMBIA — In 1844, Missouri’s governor, Thomas Reynolds, ended his scandal-plagued term by shooting himself. His successor, Meredith Marmaduke, only served a few months as governor, but he called for the “erection of a lunatic asylum in the State.”

The State Lunatic Asylum in Fulton opened in 1851 and became the first mental institution west of the Mississippi River.

Richard Lael, Margot McMillen and Barbara Brazos, authors of the recent book “Evolution of a Missouri Asylum: Fulton State Hospital, 1851-2006,” will discuss the 150-year history of the hospital at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Columbia Public Library.

“The book is a history of the state hospital specifically, but it also has a lot of context about the state of mental health care in the United States since that time before the Civil War,” McMillen said.

In the 1850s, people with chronic mental illness often ended up languishing in county jails. The asylum, in the words of Marmaduke, sought to treat its patients as “fit subjects for our compassion and not as objects of our punishment.”

McMillen, an adjunct instructor in English at Westminster College in Fulton, said, “From the beginning, Missouri has tried to adopt new techniques and (tried) to do the best they can with the kind of limited budget a tax-supported group has, and that is kind of the theme of the whole book and the whole story, actually.”

The team of authors encountered a few roadblocks in compiling the hospital’s history, as much of the information had been lost or flat-out disappeared. A fire in 1956 destroyed the hospital’s records.

“There is also the issue of client privacy in a state institution where they seal the records,” McMillen said. “It would be perfect if you could pick out a few patients and then follow them through their records, but you can’t do that because of the privacy issue.”

Co-author Richard Lael, a professor of history at Westminster, said collaborating on the book was a new direction for him. “I’m a diplomatic historian, and this is institutional history, domestic history, mental heath history. ...

“I live a block and a half from the state hospital and I wanted to know its history, and that wasn’t out there. You know it’s sort of an adventure.”

The first book to really explore an insane asylum was called “Kings Row,” which was actually written about the Fulton State Hospital,” McMillen said.

The novel, by Fulton native Henry Bellamann, later became a movie featuring Ronald Reagan.

According to McMillen, after “Kings Row” was published in 1940, the topic of mental illness became a theme in many works of popular culture, including the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

In “Evolution of a Missouri Asylum”, each of the authors focused on a different part of the hospital’s history.

Lael covered the early years of the hospital from 1851 to the beginning of 20th century.

McMillen chronicled the hospital’s history through the early decades of the 20th century.

Barbara Brazos, a nurse at the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, brought her clinical expertise to exploring the evolution of the hospital from late 20th century to the present, an era that saw huge changes in the understanding and treatment of mental illness.

“She did a lot of the interviewing of the people who are still alive and willing to talk to her, both patients and staff,” Lael said. “Because she was an insider, they were probably more open with her than they would have been with us.”

Since the book’s release, the authors have gotten feedback from those whose lives have become intertwined with the hospital.

“We are hearing a lot more stories about family members that were patients or staff at the hospital that are really beautifully personal recollections,” Lael said. “Most of them are very affectionate and sympathetic stories, and that was one thing we wanted to see happen and we thought would happen.”

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