The changing approaches to the history of madness and the lunatic asylum in Canada have broadly reflected the ebb and flow of Anglo-American psychiatric historiography. The first generation of Canadian medical historians privileged the role of individual politicians, the evolution of the medical profession, and the difficulties of state formation in the gradual establishment of state-run mental hospitals. T. J. W. Burgess, for example, thought that Canada had ‘shown a gradual process of evolution’ in the care of the insane, from ‘an era of neglect; then, one of simple custodial care with more or less mechanical restraint; and finally, the present epoch of progress’. Burgess's account was followed by more sobering interpretations of success of the lunatic asylum, such as that written by Harvey Stalwick. In his formulation, social conditions and political priorities beyond the control of pioneering alienists (psychiatrists) undermined the potentially beneficial aspects of institutional psychiatry. His sympathetic assessment of psychiatry, and its shortcomings, was thematically consistent with works produced contemporaneously in Britain and the United States, by Kathleen Jones and Gerald Grob respectively. Their work continues to attract considerable sympathy from researchers in Canada. Endorsing their ‘meliorist’ interpretation, Peter Keating has argued that the ‘moral treatment’ of insanity that inspired the first generation of asylums is best understood as a hopeful new breakthrough in medical practice.
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