From Fights to Rights Transcription Project: John M. Galt Diary

The Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center is currently working on a transcription initiative as part of the “From Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union” project. The transcription work is a massive effort by volunteers to transcribe documents such as diaries and letters and make them available online for current and future researchers. Currently, I am working on uploading scans of pages from John Minson Galt II’s diary.  As part of the transcription project, I was asked to come up with a short biography about John Galt that discussed his work at the Eastern Lunatic Asylum, which was renamed Eastern State Hospital later. 

In writing a biography for Galt, I felt like I started to understand Galt himself.  He was a member of the Virginia Medical Association and was one of the thirteen physicians who met in Phliadelphia to found the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane.  This association was the precursor to the modern American Psychiatric Association.  Over the course of his life he wrote several hundred papers describing innovative ways to care for medical patients.  He believed that “kindness” was the key medical care and worked to keep the patients in his hospital as healthy as possible.  He was also one of the first mental health physicians that believed in the benefits associated with training the mentally ill to do meaningful work, and he worked to provide learning opportunities, as well as books and games for his patients. 

Galt was a definite humanitarian.  Unfortunately, when the Union soldiers launched the Peninsular Campaign and took control of the Williamsburg area in 1862, Eastern State Hospital was right in the middle of the fighting.  The Hospital was captured by Union troops on May 6, 1862, and Galt was forbidden from continuing his work inside the hospital.  Dr. Galt died soon after, on May 18, 1862, possibly from a drug overdose.  Many believed that a great contributor to his death was anxiety over the fate of his patients, of whom he had not heard about for many days.

Dr. Galt’s diary is amazing in its description of the advanced treatments of the mentally ill.  Galt’s combination of humanitarian concern and improved care anticipates the modern systems of therapy programs and integration that characterize the mental health profession today.  I am very glad for the chance to help share this work with others.

Shannon Goings is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.

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