Psychiatry and eugenics: the classification and diagnosis of female patients in British Columbia’s psychiatric institutions, 1918-1933




Fehr, Paige

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Between 1918 and 1933, the eugenic notion of “defective heredity” was central to psychiatric practice in British Columbia. Public and medical professionals’ concerns were heightened by an apparent increase in “insane” and “mentally deficient” individuals in the province. Using the annual reports for the asylums and the case files of women who were admitted to the Public Hospital for the Insane and to Essondale between 1918 and 1933, this thesis examines the relationship between psychiatric practice and eugenics, specifically how eugenically-minded asylum physicians classified and diagnosed female patients. Asylum physicians used admissions forms, patient interviews, observation, and inference to make diagnoses. Often, despite a lack of evidence, they concluded that patients had inherited a predisposition to mental disease. Women admitted to B.C.’s Public Hospital for the Insane and to Essondale were more likely than their male counterparts to have their mental condition linked to heredity. Any “eccentric” or “abnormal” behaviour or personality in the patient or their family was considered by asylum physicians to be evidence of a predisposition to mental disorder. Within the population of female asylum patients, racialized women were the most likely to be labeled as having “defective heredity.” Widespread racial discrimination in the province, combined with the fact that eugenic discourse targeted non-white citizens as being biologically and culturally inferior, shaped and influenced the asylum physicians’ classification and diagnoses of mental illness among racialized women. The experiences of these women during their incarceration were also shaped by racialized discourse and their behaviour was negatively stereotyped by asylum staff.



history, women, psychiatry, mental health, eugenics, British Columbia, twentieth century, race, institutions