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The Asylum Hill Research Consortium is proud to annouce that Amy Forbes, PhD, has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to lead a collaborative research project about the Mississippi State Asylum, 1855 to 1935. The prject begins October 1, 2020, and will continue through 2023.
The NEH is awarding $249,836 to the project, titled “An Investigation of the Mississippi Lunatic Asylum as History and Memory.” Dr. Amy Forbes, professor of history at Millsaps, is the project director, working with her colleague Dr. Patrick Hopkins, professor of philosophy, who serves as co-director. They are joined in their work by Dr. Ralph Didlake, professor of surgery, vice chancellor for academic affairs and director of the Center for Bioethics and the Medical Humanities at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).
The grant funds research by a number of scholars over three years to create an historical monograph, a multi-disciplinary anthology of essays, a website, and a database of asylum-related oral histories and archival materials. Additionally, the grant will benefit students at Millsaps through internships and opportunities for original research in the college’s degree programs for history, philosophy and a new minor in medical humanities, which is emerging as a growing field across the country.Faculty and students from Millsaps will also be utilizing the college’s “History Mobile,” an Airstream trailer configured as a mobile recording studio. It will be used around the state to gather stories from descendants of Asylum patients and staff, as well as the general public.
The Asylum Hill Research Consortium includes scholars from a wide variety of backgrounds:
As plans progress for exhuming the remains, our archaeology and anthropology partners will guide us in developing a field school so that the work can be done in a cost-effective manner while still maintaining the highest standards of professionalism and academic integrity.
The exhumation of human remains is ethically complex which is why the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at UMMC is spearheading this effort. There must always be a careful balance between the needs of UMMC to fulfill its mission regarding current and future patients and the necessary respect that should be afforded the former patients whose final resting place was on the grounds of the former Asylum.
The history of the Asylum is documented through records housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, through newspaper articles, and through family recollections, letters and photos. Our history partners aim to create a more detailed picture of what life was like for patients at the Asylum while it was in existence on the UMMC grounds between 1855 and 1935.
The mental conditions mentioned in the admission records for the old Asylum include diagnoses which are not necessarily used today. Even familiar terms like “mania” may have had different meanings in the 1800s than they do today. The work of our psychiatry partners will help define the terms within their historical context.
We are fortunate to be working closely with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History on the Asylum Hill Project. They hold many critical historic documents related to the Asylum. We have also been fortunate to locate some previously unknown records at Whitfield. UMMC’s Rowland Medical Library is working now to preserve and scan those for future researcher access.
The AHRC is creating a database which will house data associated with the remains as well as historical information gleaned from original records. The amount of information associated with over 30,000 individual patient admissions as well as archaeological and scientific data generated from the exhumations will be staggering. Careful management of this data is essential to the integrity of any research going forward.
Dendrochronology is the science or technique of dating events, environmental change, and archaeological artifacts by using the characteristic patterns of annual growth rings in timber and tree trunks. It is important to the Asylum Hill Project because, based on the 66 remains already exhumed, we believe each patient was buried in individual wooden (likely pine) coffins. Study of the coffin material is essential to accurately date the burials.
Teeth can be very helpful in providing scientific data about individuals because they are often better preserved than bones themselves. If intact at time of death, they can inform us about age, gender, culture, heredity and diet.
Not only does state and sometimes federal law govern burials and exhumations, laws also governed admission to the Asylum. Many patients were sent by juries of their peers who deemed it necessary to send them to the Asylum for their safety or the safety of others in the community. The intersection of law and ethics will also be important as we move forward with the project.