J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dr. Daniel How: prepared to receive insane patients

Yesterday I quoted Samuel Breck’s passing remark that Andover, Massachusetts, was “a town where insane people are well nursed and comfortably boarded.” That intrigued me, so I dug further. The town tradition seems to have started with Dr. Daniel How (1719-1797), a local physician who specialized in mental illnesses.

The earliest hint of this specialty that I’ve found is in the diary of the Rev. Thomas Smith of Portland, Maine. Himself subject to “hypochondriac” fits and disorders, Smith wrote with interest about a clerical colleague, the Rev. John Wiswell or Wiswall (1731-1812):

[24 Dec 1761] Mr. Wiswall taken distracted.
[17 July 1762] Mr. Wiswell (at New Casco [parish in Falmouth]) is close confined in the height of distraction.
[6 Sept] Mr. Wiswell went to Boston last night.
[19 Nov] Mr. Wiswell returned to this place from Dr. How, of Andover.
According to this Mental Health History Timeline and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, How’s treatment for Wiswell was a “dark chamber,” and recovery was swift—perhaps because Wiswell would have recovered anyway.

A couple of years later, Wiswell accepted a nearby Anglican church’s invitation to become their minister. From that point he leaned Loyalist, and on 11 May 1775 he was suddenly arrested by the Topsham militia under Col. Samuel Thompson. [Try saying “Thompson of Topsham” three times fast.] Wiswell was released, moved to England, and finally settled in Nova Scotia.

On 14 June 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress noted Dr. How’s work with the mentally ill by passing this resolve:
Whereas the committee are informed that Dr. How of Andover is prepared to receive insane patients and is well skilled in such disorders, resolved that Daniel Adams, a lunatic now at Woburn, be carried to the town of Andover and committed to the care of Doct. How and the said Dr. How be hereby desired to take proper care of the said lunatic at the expense of this colony.
James Otis, Jr., was another person suffering from mental illness who went to live in Andover. He first showed signs of psychosis in 1769, and had to be confined the next year, but I don’t know where he was treated then. Otis spent most of the early 1780s in Andover, perhaps receiving treatment from Dr. How. Otis lived at the home of Capt. Isaac Osgood until he was struck by lightning, on 23 May 1783. The picture above shows the Osgood house in Andover; note the lightning bolt helpfully inserted on the right.

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