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King Davis to Receive Benjamin Rush Award for Central State Hospital Archives Project

Texas iSchool Colleague and Research Professor King Davis was recently selected for the Benjamin Rush Award from the American Psychiatric Association for, “The Central State Hospital Archives Project.” Known as the “Father” of American psychiatry, Rush is celebrated for his multiple contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Criteria for the Award involve academic and independent scholars whose research and publications are recognized as making a major contribution to the history of psychiatry.

The Central State Hospital Archives Project started in 2009 as an unfunded project with the goal of increasing electronic access to psychiatric records for families and scholars, while adhering to the legal and ethical standards that guarantee privacy of protected health information.

The project involved Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane (CLACI), which was opened in 1870 as the first mental institution in the United States exclusively for newly freed slaves, and remained racially segregated until 1964 when federal law required the elimination of this practice throughout the country. “Its opening reversed the prevailing 100 year-old hypothesis that blackness and landlessness offered immunity from the risk of mental illness,” said Davis. 

“The hospital retained thousands of original documents and photographs from 100 years of segregated admissions and treatment, but the bulk of these historical records existed in an unarchived environment,” explained Davis. “Assistance was needed to preserve, organize, and increase electronic access to these documents –consistent with existing law.”

“Every state behavioral health system has historical records; however these records are often kept in environments that lead to their deterioration and a loss of history,” noted Davis. What’s more, “states are often unprepared to maintain and protect their archives, and lack the funding to support the innovative digital approaches demonstrated through this project,” he explained. 

In its first six years, the project obtained funding to locate, restore, catalog and digitize the 800,000 paper documents and 6000 photographs maintained at the hospital. And in 2015, additional funding enabled the project to address the intersection of increased access and maintenance of privacy of sensitive historical psychiatric records. 

The archives project collected, copied, and analyzed patient, organizational, and policy data from Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane (renamed Central State Hospital in 1885), as well as survey findings from multiple states and academic scholars. 

“Our opportunity to analyze the content of these records tells many stories about the science of psychiatry and mental health treatment during the 18thand 19thcentury career of Dr. Benjamin Rush,” said Davis. “Initial work illuminated how multiple issues of race, slavery, segregation, unscientific predictions of the prevalence of illness, and treatment science were managed in historical literature, public policy and mental institutions,” he explained. “The project also demonstrated the strategic value of developing and nourishing collaboration between interdisciplinary faculty, the state hospital, archivists, state agencies, public libraries, local non-profit organizations, families, and professional associations.”

Executive director of the UT Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and previously Commissioner of Behavioral Health for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Davis joined the Texas iSchool faculty in 2014. As principal investigator, he assembled an interdisciplinary group of UT faculty and graduate students to participate in the project. 

Co-principal investigators and Texas iSchool Professors Pat Galloway and Unmil Karadkar “graciously lent their expertise, wisdom, and persistence to collect, preserve, and organize close to 800,000 pages of documents and thousands of photographs. And post-doctoral student Lorraine Dong, spent several months onsite to collect, organize, restore, and preserve thousands of documents that were scattered throughout the hospital,” explained Davis.

From the beginning of the project, “faculty, administrators, and students worked collaboratively to develop and preserve the archives from CLACI,” said Davis. “The Rush award is recognition of the tremendous academic collaboration and innovation here at UT that helped to preserve psychiatric records that might not otherwise have survived,” he noted.“I appreciate the contagious sense of collaboration that is the hallmark of this great school and university.” 

Davis will deliver the Benjamin Rush lecture and project findings at the 175th anniversary of the American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco this May. During his presentation, he plans to identify the historical themes that led to the development of Central State Hospital, the various theories that sought to link blackness and disease, and the implications of these views into the 21stcentury.

“Moving forward, the goal is to replicate this work at the state hospital in Austin, Texas, where hospital records are deteriorating,” said Davis. Although funding for the archives project ended in 2018, Davis feels hopeful about new funding –to continue to develop and share methods for preserving and analyzing sensitive historical psychiatric records, while adhering to privacy standards.