Experimental Treatments

This article investigates new and experimental medical treatments used to cure ‘maternal insanity’ in women committed to Victorian psychiatric institutions between 1920 and 1936. Close examination of the women’s clinical files reveals the use of numerous treatments, vaccines, and tests that produced a wide range of patient outcomes.

Patients received the ‘medically safe’ typhoid vaccine and Wassermann test, while the more controversial insulin coma therapy, ultraviolet ‘rays’, sterilisation, and abortion posed serious health risks. Gender influenced doctors’ therapeutic rationale in most cases, while in other instances treatments strengthened the patient–doctor relationship by offering patients hope for recovery. The treatments prescribed to insane mothers remind us of the stark realities of experimental physical treatments in Australia’s past.

Written by Dr Alison Watts, Adjunct Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW. See Alison’s full bio here
Citation: Watts, A. 2021. Experimental treatments: Women, gender and ‘maternal insanity’ in Victorian psychiatric institutions: 1920–36, Health & History Journal, 23 (1),1–18. doi:10.5401/healthhist.23.1.0001.

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