By Sander L. Gilman ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915), Arts and Crafts guru and follower of the British reformer William Morris (1834–96), is best known for writing the inspirational self-help essay “Message to Garcia” (1899). In the early 1900s his books could be found in many middle-class homes. He was an opponent of formal education and the professions in general, which he saw as destroying self-worth and poisoning individual initiative. The Doctors, his “satire in four seizures,” is similar in tone to other contemporary critiques of medicine, such as Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science.
The plot is familiar: Mrs. X is sent unconscious and in chains to the State Hospital by her husband, the Reverend Cecil Kelrusey, whose family is distraught that he has married an “actress.” Seizing their young child, he tries to have his wife declared incompetent. The story echoes that of Mrs. Elizabeth Packard, which made headlines in the 1860s when her husband, the Reverend Theophilus Packard, had her committed to the Illinois State Hospital for disagreeing with his theology. Freed after a widely publicized court case, Mrs. Packard went on to found the Anti–Insane Asylum Society and wrote Marital Power Exemplified, or Three Years’ Imprisonment for Religious Belief (1866), which provided Hubbard with many of the details for his satire.
In Hubbard’s play the doctors treat Mrs. X with fashionable techniques such as the “restcure” (presented here as a torture in which the patient is strapped to a bed for weeks at a time, causing her to lapse into despair). The physicians are based on prominent “alienists” of the day: the asylum superintendent is Dr. Agnew Weir (S. Weir Mitchell invented the rest cure); his assistant is Dr. Jean Charlcot (Jean-Martin Charcot was a proponent of the hysteria diagnosis). With the help of asylum workmen Mrs. X outsmarts her doctors and becomes a force for good in the lives of the other patients, introducing “healthy” activities such as gardening and exercise. Eventually she converts Dr. Weir to the cause, is granted a divorce, reclaims her child, and marries the doctor, who decides to run the asylum on modern principles—healthy food, light gymnastics, fresh air—which sound a lot like those of J. H. Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium. Drugs and invasive therapies are out. The other doctors quit in disgust.
Hubbard, as was his wont, intersperses the pages of the play with artfully illustrated aphorisms: “The Three Learned Professions [medicine, law, religion] surely need our sympathy, since they know so many things that are not so.” “Is the World all wrong? Reform yourself.” “Breathe more, eat less and think well of everybody especially doctors.” Seemingly an early example of anti-psychiatry, The Doctors is more prone to preach the dogma of the “selfmade man,” a phrase coined by Frederick Douglass (1817/8–95) and propagated in the novels of Horatio Alger (1832–99). Hubbard is as critical of patients as he is of institutions: “Fool patients evolve fool doctors.” Writing for a middle-class audience in the heyday of muckraking progressive journalism, Hubbard planted his critique in the pages of a beautifully wrought, leather-bound, letterpress gift book.
Sander L. Gilman is a distinguished professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University. A cultural and literary historian, he is the author of the basic study of the visual stereotyping of the mentally ill, Seeing the Insane. For twenty-five years he was a member of the humanities and medical faculties at Cornell University where he held the Goldwin Smith Professorship of Humane Studies. During 1990–91 he served as Visiting Historical Scholar at the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland.