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A trip back in time in Utah

October 1, 2008
by David Raths
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Visitors to the Utah State Hospital in Provo now have the opportunity to travel back in time to get a glimpse of what mental health treatment was like in the days when the hospital was called the Territorial Insane Asylum.

Opened on September 16 in the former hospital superintendent’s home, the Utah State Hospital Museum features old photographs and displays such as straightjackets, a shackle called the “Oregon boot,” and the Utica crib, a cage-like device with a hinged top used to handle uncontrollable patients.

If visitors are shocked by learning about the harshness of some of the “treatments” and the crowded conditions patients faced, they also are impressed by remnants of patient craftwork, such as beautiful pieces of embroidery or handmade wicker furniture.

An "Oregon boot." A "Utica crib." Photos courtesy of Utah State Hospital Museum

The idea behind the museum, which involved several years of planning, is to give people an idea of how far treatment has come, says Janina Chilton, the hospital’s historian.

“People are quite surprised that these treatments were used not so long ago,” she says. Some of the photos on display are from the 1950s. Most visitors are surprised how late into the 20th century some extreme procedures, such as lobotomies, were occurring.

“We had whole wards of people who were called ‘non-insane epileptics’ in this community,” Chilton notes. “They were not mentally ill, but there was no treatment for epilepsy.”

Patient records from 100 years ago also provide insight into patient diagnoses. Patients were considered mentally ill for excessive novel reading and exposure to too much sunlight.

Chilton stresses to visitors that the museum’s goal is not to malign the staff from those times.

“This was the state of care at the time, and the caregivers were as responsive and caring as they are now,” she says. “I have to remind them to think about the general state of medical care 120 years ago, without antiseptics or sulfa drugs.”

She also makes the point that providers still have a long way to go toward curing some types of mental illness, not just treating patients: “We have to think about how people 50 years from now will look back at how we’re treating patients.”

David Raths is a freelance writer.

For more on psychiatric “treatments” used in earlier times, click


The former Utah State Hospital, which was demolished in 1981. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Hospital Museum