Efforts by two professors from Millsaps College to lead a comprehensive study and analysis of the Mississippi Lunatic Asylum in Mississippi’s history and the memory of Mississippians will be supported through a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Only 10 Collaborative Research Grants were awarded nationally this year.
The NEH is awarding $249,836 to the project, titled “An Investigation of the Mississippi Lunatic Asylum as History and Memory.” Dr. Amy Forbes, professor of history at Millsaps, is the project director, working with her colleague Dr. Patrick Hopkins, professor of philosophy, who serves as co-director. They are joined in their work by Dr. Ralph Didlake, professor of surgery, vice chancellor for academic affairs and director of the Center for Bioethics and the Medical Humanities at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).
In 2012, coffins from what was believed to be the Asylum’s cemetery were discovered on the grounds of UMMC. By 2016, the extent of the burial was an estimated 7,000 graves, sparking questions about the Asylum and those who were buried on the property. The work to be supported by the NEH grant represents the first comprehensive effort to address the discovery in a historical and social context.
The grant funds research by a number of scholars over three years to create an historical monograph, a multi-disciplinary anthology of essays, a website, and a database of asylum-related oral histories and archival materials. Additionally, the grant will benefit students at Millsaps through internships and opportunities for original research in the college’s degree programs for history, philosophy and a new minor in medical humanities, which is emerging as a growing field across the country.
Faculty and students from Millsaps will also be utilizing the college’s “History Mobile,” an Airstream trailer configured as a mobile recording studio. It will be used around the state to gather stories from descendants of Asylum patients and staff, as well as the general public.
“I’m grateful to the NEH for the opportunity to represent Millsaps in a project that’s receiving national attention, and to advance medical humanities in Mississippi,” Forbes said. “Asylum Hill has been compared to Bethlem Hospital/Bedlam in its potential scholarly yield and significance. It’s an honor to collaborate with Patrick Hopkins, Ralph Didlake, Michael Gleason (adjunct associate professor of English at Millsaps) and our colleagues at the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities on such important work.”
The award for what is known as the “Asylum Hill Project” is designed to “support interpretive research undertaken by a team of two or more collaborating scholars that adds significantly to knowledge and understanding of the humanities.”
“Lots of Mississippians have stories passed down through their families of relatives who spent time at the Asylum, though most don’t know why they were there or what life was like there,” said Hopkins. “Overwhelmingly, what we have seen in the questions from descendants is plain curiosity. We want to collect those stories, study the day-to-day history of the Asylum and help address that curiosity.”
Millsaps College is one of eight colleges or universities that comprise the Asylum Hill Research Consortium. Other institutions include UMMC, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Jackson State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, Texas State University and the University of Idaho.