Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Carlina M. de la Cova

Second Advisor

Sharon N. DeWitte


In the mid 19th-century, American state-supported insane asylums, later renamed state mental hospitals in the 20th-century, were constructed to house and humanely treat individuals perceived to be socially deviant or mentally and physically ill. Women were particularly vulnerable to undue institutionalization because of the prevailing patriarchal gender ideology within medical and colloquial spheres that contributed to the perception that they were biologically pathological. This dissertation interprets the findings of combined archival, historical, and osteological analysis from two U.S. skeletal collections: The Colorado State Insane Asylum (CSIA) Collection and the Hamann-Todd Human Osteological Collection (HT), to examine the embodied, physiological impact of institutionalization. Archival and skeletal analysis of fractures, oral health, hyperostosis frontalis interna, and disease (syphilis and tuberculosis) among institutionalized EuroAmerican women from these two collections, along with a comparative noninstitutionalized control sample from the HT collection, are interpreted using four theoretical frameworks (i.e., intersectionality, ecosocial theory, structural violence, and feminist disability theory) to better understand the differential embodied effects of medicalization and institutional treatment across geographically and temporally separated asylums. Broadly, results demonstrate how theoretical frameworks highlight heterogeneity in what are often homogenous categories of analysis. Historical and archival results suggest that women overall were more likely to be pathologized and institutionalized for reasons that men were not (e.g., menopause and postpartum depression). Additionally, impoverished, immigrant women appear to have been disproportionately prone to institutionalization diachronically potentially due to reduced support networks, restricted access to economic prosperity, and racial prejudices of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Combined archival and skeletal analysis revealed that the structurally violent setting characteristic of asylums may have contributed to negative, avoidable health outcomes for patients. Admission and mortality rates of disease (i.e., tuberculosis and syphilis) in both institutions exceeded rates within the general public. Potentially due to severe overcrowding and neglect, patients from the Cleveland State Hospital (from the HT collection), demonstrate skeletal evidence of having endured a structurally violent environment including untreated skeletal fractures and avoidable death. This project contributes to unsilencing the experiences of Euro-American women who endured mental institutionalization and ultimately death within two publicly-funded American asylums. It also offers an example to future bioarchaeological studies that seek to engage in theoretically-driven biosocial research that strives to humanize those who lived in the recent past. It is imperative that bioarchaeological research be holistic, using as many informative sources as possible to honor the dead and benefit the living

Available for download on Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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