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Summers a National Humanities Center Fellow

“You have a fascinating case study on the intersections of the historical process of racial formation, medical and cultural understandings of insanity, and the exercise of institutional power.” — Martin Summers (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: July 18, 2013

Associate Professor of History Martin A. Summers has been named as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center for the 2013-14 academic year, joining 35 other distinguished scholars from institutions across the United States, Canada, France and Russia.

Chosen from more than 400 applicants, NHC fellows — who represent humanistic scholarship in history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, art history, classics, musicology, and religion — work on individual research projects and have the opportunity to share ideas in seminars, lectures, and conferences at the center, located in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. 

Summers, who has a joint appointment in the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, is the first recipient of the center’s newly established Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Fellowship for his research project, “Race, Madness, and the State: A History of Saint Elizabeths Hospital and Washington, DC’s African American Community, 1855-1987.”

“I’m thrilled to have been chosen for such a prestigious honor,” said Summers, the third Boston College faculty member to be selected as an NHC Fellow, along with English Professor Kevin J. Ohi (2004-05) and Professor of Theology Rev. James Weiss (1986-87). “My last external research fellowship — at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study during 2007-08 — was what originally brought me to Boston, which eventually resulted in me joining Boston College.

“Now, this fellowship from the National Humanities Center will enable me to complete the research project I had been working on that year, and which I began back in 2001. I look forward to what promises to be a rewarding year.”

An historian of culture and society, Summers said that through researching and writing “Race, Madness, and the State” he has become “an historian of medicine” as well. Not that he set out to do so: While browsing the National Archives in Washington, he stumbled across a register book for Saint Elizabeths Hospital, which was the country’s first large-scale, federally operated psychiatric hospital when it opened in 1855. As he began to delve into hospital records and other materials, he found a compelling story.

Although Saint Elizabeths was established to house inmates under federal jurisdiction, chiefly military personnel, the lack of municipally run psychiatric facilities in Washington prompted authorities to also utilize it for mentally ill civilian residents of the district too poor to afford private care, Summers said. This meant a significant part of the hospital population was African-American, and that percentage would rise over the decades, especially when the military stopped using Saint Elizabeths after World War II.

“When I expanded my research, I found there hadn’t been much written about race and mental illness from a historical perspective,” said Summers. “For me, St. Elizabeths presented some big questions: What is the role of ideas and attitudes regarding race in how psychiatric professionals regarded mental illness? How did that translate into the management of patients at Saint Elizabeths? And how did this all affect the relationship between the hospital and the African-American community in DC?

“In this context, the legacy of Saint Elizabeths is a mixed one. Certainly, the hospital provided a valuable service by taking responsibility for the African-American patients who came to their door, rather than turning them out. But at the same time, these patients were treated differently than white patients.

“So, looking at this hospital over a 130-year period, you have a fascinating case study on the intersections of the historical process of racial formation, medical and cultural understandings of insanity, and the exercise of institutional power.”

Supported in part by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by contributions from alumni and friends, the National Humanities Center [] has awarded fellowships to more than 1,200 scholars in the humanities. Their work at the center has resulted in the publication of more than 1,400 books in all fields of humanistic study. The center also sponsors programs to strengthen the teaching of the humanities in secondary and higher education.