'These strangers within our gates': race, psychiatry and mental illness among black Americans at St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, 1900-40

Hist Psychiatry. 2008 Dec;19(76 Pt 4):387-408. doi: 10.1177/0957154X08089452.


During the early decades of the twentieth century, William Alanson White and the medical staff at St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, developed an ambitious programme for US psychiatry wherein the profession would dedicate itself to the reconstitution of mentally-fit and socially-productive American citizens. The racist assumptions beneath this programme led most physicians at the institution to expect little more than deference, dependence and common labour from their black patients, preventing them from comprehending the impact of substandard and racially-segregated care. Black men and women were acutely aware of the injustices they faced. When they rejected elements of the hospital's medical regimen, these patients were also rejecting a social vision that consigned them to the margins of US civic life.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Black or African American / history*
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / history
  • District of Columbia
  • History, 20th Century
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric / history*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / history*
  • Philosophy, Medical / history
  • Physician Executives / history*
  • Prejudice*
  • Psychiatry / history*
  • Psychoanalysis / history

Personal name as subject

  • William Alanson White