The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Taking a closer look at the institutionalized: the late 19th century Colorado Insane Asylum


Anthropology, Colorado State University

Saturday Afternoon, 200DE Add to calendar

In late 1879, Colorado opened its State mental hospital. From 1979-1900, nearly 2000 individuals were admitted. Slightly more than half were discharged after varying amounts of time, while about 500 died by 1900. Two hundred were reported to have been buried on the hospital grounds. About 155 of them were excavated and analyzed.

Those committed to the asylum were generally poor, and the majority of males with a listed occupation were laborers, farmers, or miners. Women were generally domestics or housewives. Among males, important causes for admission were intemperance or syphilis, while for females admission was often due to heredity or reproductive problems. Men were admitted at higher rates than women, and being single or widowed increased the risk of incarceration. Foreign-born individuals were admitted more frequently than their native counterparts, especially Irish women.

At least 13% of admissions were due to neurosyphilis. We document one clear case and four likely cases of syphilis. The number of cases is lower than expected. Chemical testing of a sample of the series using ICP-BM analysis showed no evidence of elevated levels of mercury which was often used to treat syphilis, although a few cases of lead and arsenic poisoning were identified. A number of individuals showed traumatic injury. It is likely that the traumatic injuries occurred prior to admission. Finally, a detailed study of osteoarthritis showed an unexpectedly low prevalence of joint degeneration, even though patients were lower class laborers.

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