The Western State Hospital and Joseph Dejarnette
The Western State Lunatic Asylum opened in Staunton, Virginia in 1828. The first director of the hospital, Dr. Francis Stribling, supported reform of the mental health care system and made efforts to treat patients more humanely. He also believed that the environment of patients would greatly impact their overall health. The hospital was designed to be aesthetically pleasing, with its large windows and well-groomed landscape. Stribling increased social interaction between patients by creating large common rooms and encouraged patients to spend time outside in the terraced gardens. This was much different from the treatment of mentally ill elsewhere, where patients were cooped up in small, poorly ventilated rooms for extended periods of time. In 1894, the hospital was renamed the Western State Hospital.
Joseph DeJarnette was the superintendent of the hospital from 1905-1943. DeJarnette was a strong supporter of eugenics. Like many other eugenicists at the time, he believed that mental illness was genetic and that through sterilization, feeble-mindedness could be eliminated. DeJarnette deemed those unfit, and requiring sterilization, as alcoholics, habitual criminals, and feebleminded people. He found those people to be threats to society and thus required hospitalization. Explained by Brianna Melchione, "According to the arguments made by DeJarnette, it appeared that sterilization was beneficial for both the hospital and the patient: the surgical operation saved the hospital money and alleviated the State's financial burden, and the patients obtained freedom and a life outside the asylum." Surprisingly, many of the patients and the families of patients that were sterilized at the hospital were thankful for the procedure. He received numerous letters praising him and the way he treated his patients. Many of these letters can be seen at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia.
One of DeJarnette's favorite pastimes was writing poetry. A frequent topic of his poems was eugenics and one that he was most proud of was one titled "Mendel's Law." DeJarnette cites Gregor Mendel's research on heredity as evidence of genetics being the cause of feeble-mindedness. The poem was published multiple times starting in the 1920s.
Melchione, Brianna. 2016. “An Appointment with Dr. Joseph DeJarnette: An Analysis of a Leading Eugenics Advocate and How His Legacy Has Been Rewritten, 1906-1943.”