‘From blasting powder to tomato pickles: Patient labour at the Provincial Mental Hospitals in British Columbia, c. 1885-1920’

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Kathryn McKay

(cand. PhD), History, Simon Fraser University, Canada

‘From blasting powder to tomato pickles: Patient labour at the Provincial Mental Hospitals in British Columbia, c. 1885-1920’

(Introduced by: Dr Yolanda Eraso, Health and Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University)

 [18min; no slides]


Paper presented to the International Research Symposium:

"Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment:

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy"

26–27 June 2013,  St Anne’s College, Oxford


Abstract: Using published reports, governmental correspondence, and case file information, my paper explores the tension between occupational therapy as a therapeutic regime and as a crucial component of fiscal responsibility in the efficient operation of the mental hospitals.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Annual Reports of the Provincial Hospitals for the Insane in British Columbia highlighted the positive aspects of occupational therapy. The Medical Superintendent reported that patients engaged in productive labour often displayed enhanced mental improvement. The variety of statistical tables included in the Annual Reports illustrated the fiscal value of this labour. For example tables indicated the number of “man-days” of work completed in a year, or the number of items made and repaired by the female patients. On the surface, this combination of narrative and statistical information suggested a well-managed hospital populated by patients enthused with labour as a means of effective therapy.

However, the context and content of the reports indicated that Medical Superintendents manipulated the location of the tables to highlight specific data. In an era prior to treatments, the tables closed the discussion of the patient population on a positive note. As authorities included regimes of therapy, the tables shifted to reflect financial concerns. The language of these reports also revealed the racial and gendered stereotypes that informed the placement of the workers. While authorities placed some skilled workers, generally white and male, in positions related to their trades, they assigned most racialized patients to menial and repetitive tasks, unlikely to promote the amelioration of their mental disturbances, but required for the financial well being of the institution.

Occupational therapy presented an uneven record as a therapeutic regime. While it may have alleviated the boredom of some patients, it most certainly contributed to the monotony of others. Fiscally, however, occupational therapy provided the economic stimulus required by modern state administered institutions.



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