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Starr Center for the


Study of the American Experience

“How Early American Settlers Responded to Mental Illness”


Date: 4:30pm EST February 20

2019-2020 Guy F. Goodfellow Memorial Lecture, Cornelia Dayton, Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs

In Early America, no asylums existed and only a handful of private care arrangements for the well-connected were in operation. Laypeople—family members and townspeople—not physicians were the primary decision-makers and caretakers when someone suffered from serious mental distress or cognitive disability. Drawing on evidence from New England sources spanning from the late 1600s to the early 1800s, Dayton will discuss white settlers’ ways of talking about mental trouble, as well as their primary responses–Christian compassion, household work-arounds, legal exculpation, and other protective mechanisms. Underscoring the gender, race, and class limits on such sympathetic treatment, she will go into some detail about three types of crises that could arise.

Cornelia Dayton graduated from Harvard-Radcliffe College before receiving her Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. Dayton held a two-year postdoctoral fellowship and assistant professorship at the Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary. She was on the History faculty of the University of California at Irvine between 1988 and 1997, and held several residential fellowships while working on a book project titled Frames of Distraction: Self and Sanity in Pre-Asylum New England.

Presented by the Washington College Department of History