Photo by The New York Public Library

In the past, asylums used inhumane treatments and procedures for different sets of patients to work on medical, procedural, and biological research on human subjects. 

Lunatic asylums or mental asylums are hospitals for mentally challenged patients that paved the way for modern psychiatric wards. Several staff members work in the asylum, including doctors, nurses, cleaners, artisans, and attendants. An asylum is a place where the insane people are kept for several treatments that could be inhumane and torturous. 

Patricia Lubeck’s book Asylum Scandals exposes the truth about two asylums that once stood in Minnesota. The book provides an insight into the treatments and torture procedures that patients used to receive from medical practitioners. 

Here are examples of inhuman treatments and procedures that mentally ill patients receive from the medical people:

Humoral Treatments

The human body was believed to be composed of four humors (fluids): blood, urine, yellow bile, and black bile. People believed in letting the humor stay in balance to stay healthy. In the past, people used to believe that mental patients were demon-possessed until they came up with theories about humor balance in the body.

To keep humoral balance, medical practitioners will execute bloodletting, letting an amount of blood flow out of the body or by leeches. This procedure, or phlebotomy, is still used in specific medical cases today.

Inhumane activities involving humoral treatments include “purging” the patient. The practitioner will let the patient bleed a huge volume of blood, blister, or vomit. Some procedures would include the removal of visceral organs, such as the stomach, intestines, appendixes, and parts of the colon.

For cases like Syphilis, the practitioner would inject malaria-infected blood to the patient with schizophrenia. The mortality rate of this procedure was quite high. 


Hydrotherapy is one of the most common techniques to restrain patients who are experiencing manic episodes. Practitioners would put the patients in straight-jackets, and submerge them in a deluge of cold water for hours and sometimes days. 

Shock Therapies

One of the most inhumane treatments and procedures in asylums is shock therapy. If a patient experiences manic episodes, the practitioner would administer shock therapies. There are two techniques for this procedure:

Insulin Shock Therapy

– Insulin shock therapy is the administration of insulin to the bloodstream of mental patients, putting them in a deep coma. The patient would undergo a coma for several hours until they were revived from the shock and thought they had been cured of their condition. This procedure was popular to administer in people experiencing schizophrenia but was also used in patients with other mental conditions. Too much insulin can cause convulsions and coma in the patient. Ultimately, the use of this treatment was terminated and discredited in the 1960s.

Electroconvulsive Shock Therapy

– This shock therapy is non-convulsive as opposed to insulin shock therapy. This procedure started by using a torpedo ray, a type of cartilaginous fish that can produce electric shocks, on the forehead of the patient. Moreover, a machine for electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) was later developed to enhance the possibility of treating schizophrenia, depression, and acute mania. Lastly, ECT is still practiced in psychiatric hospitals today. 


This procedure requires damaging the neural connections in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain to cure mental illnesses. With this, practitioners would drill a hole in the prefrontal lobe of the brain and pour pure ethanol to destroy neural connections. This procedure also includes removing some brain tissues. The prefrontal lobe is responsible for memory, emotions, and problem-solving. Still, some patients experienced improvement in cognitive functions, while some were left with permanent damage. Lobotomy is no longer practiced today. 

Psychiatric Medications

In the mid-1800s, practitioners resort to administering drugs to patients to control them during manic episodes. These drugs sedate mental patients to keep them in a manageable state. Still in their sedated state, some practitioners would then administer experiments that include amputation, organ connection, or observations of human subjects for drugs. 

During this time, medical practitioners would administer drugs to patients with specific conditions:

– Toxic mercury for patients with mania

– Barbiturates to control those with madness

– Chloral hydrate for psychotic episodes

– Thorazine for treating mental illness

Thorazine became a breakthrough for the medical field in dealing with patients with mental illness. Other drugs that followed yielded preferable results, including Abilify, Risperdal, Seroquel, and Zyprexa. 

Some of these inhumane treatments and procedures opened doors for humane and safe methods to treat patients. Ultimately, so many lives have suffered through the illegal procedures as well, especially for those people who became prisoners and mental patients during the wars. 

Check out Patricia Lubeck’s Asylum Scandals on to buy the book and learn more about the author. You may also buy a copy of the book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.