Dr. Francis T. Stribling and Moral Medicine - Alice Davis WoodDr. Stribling was only twenty-six years old in 1836 when he became head of Western State hospital. Then, every institution for the insane in the South, and all but a very few in the remainder of the country, were little more than penitentiaries.
Dr. Robert Hansen, superintendent of Western State Hospital, wrote in 1967, "In an age of the common man, Dr. Stribling possessed an uncommon and profound knowledge of human nature, and the importance of human relationships. He believed that the drives, interests, and needs of the insane were the same as those of others, and that satisfaction of them through human relationships, would help restore their reason."
Stribling recognized that insanity was a disease that if treated early, was curable. He used medical and moral therapy, separately or in concert, to cure his patients. Moral medicine included early treatment, separating the violent from those who could be cured, eliminating restraints whenever possible, providing patients with nutritious food, occupation, exercise, amusements and religious services. Caretakers were instructed how to increase their patients' self-esteem, especially by being their friend.
Stribling's efforts to admit only patients who could be cured resulted in a bitter dispute in the early 1840s between him and Dr. John Minson. Galt was head of Eastern State Hospital, the first institution in the Colonies built for the treatment of the insane. Soon thereafter, Stribling rewrote Virginia's laws concerning the insane to conform to his admission policies. In 1852, Stribling and his directors defended themselves against charges by Captain Randolph that they abused their patients. Randolph's son had been a patient at Western State. During the Civil War Stribling managed to provide for his patients even after Sheridan's troops sacked his hospital.
The daily lives of slave servants are described and also the different approaches taken by Stribling and Galt provide for insane free blacks and insane slaves. The similarities and differences between the two young doctors are examined. (Stribling was twenty-six and Galt twenty-two when they assumed their positions.) Letters between Dr. Stribling and Dorothea Dix from 1849 until 1860 describe a deep and intimate friendship. Mrs. Stribling's letter to her eighteen-year-old son while he was a prisoner of war is probably representative of many letters from other mothers in the South and North who were in a similar situation.
After the war, Stribing was successful after he petitioned Congress to keep his job. His reconciliation speech at the superintendents' meeting in Boston in 1868 was highly praised by his fellow superintendents and the Boston press. Dr. Stribling died in 1874.
Curing the Insane at Virginia's Western State Hospital: 1836-1874