Paradox and irony converge: a story of stigma

by Jane Mahoney, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC on September 17, 2010 · 1 comment

in stigma

We have been writing for some time now trying to get out the message that it is time to say “no” to stigma. Since stigma carries personal pain and suffering, which is particularly true of persons who suffer with severe and persistent mental illness, I thought it might be useful to reflect on at least one historical fact about what stigma means.

Defining stigma

The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester begins with a scene that took place in 1872 in Lambert Marsh, a less than desirable section of London. A young worker, George Merrret, left his home where his wife and young daughter slept to work the night shift at a local brewery. On his way he was shot and killed by a man wearing a mask and yelling furiously in a fit of paranoia.

William Chester Minor was arrested for murder and taken to jail. Later it was learned that he was an American, a qualified surgeon and a former military officer. Dr. Minor was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity under the McNaughton Rule, which stipulated that someone who commits a crime yet cannot tell right from wrong must be considered not guilty by reason of insanity. (This rule of law still governs prosecutions in the State of Texas today.) The judge sentenced Dr. Minor to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

As it turned out, Dr. Minor had served as a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War. As part of his duties, he was ordered to brand the cheek of deserters with a D. This particular duty caused Dr. Minor incredible distress, and ultimately, the Army discharged him because of mental instability. Following the war he was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental hospital. Later he traveled to England to quiet what he experienced as an “inflamed” mind. The next year he shot and killed George Merret.

One man’s contribution

Dr. Minor was a lover of books, and his hunger for them led him to correspond with London booksellers while he was at the Broadmoor Asylum. Through his correspondence he learned of a call for contributions to what would later be known as the Oxford English Dictionary. He contributed scores of definitions with supporting phrases, examples and historical references. It wasn’t until quite some time later that the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary became aware of Dr. Minor’s history and situation.

Dr. Minor

One of the definitions submitted by William Minor was stigma: to mark or to brand. The man who was ordered to brand other men was faced with living a stigmatized life, a life in which he was branded by society as a deviant.

The irony of the story is sobering. It raises many moral and ethical concerns related to stigma. There is a need to protect society from violence and to protect victim’s rights.

The real struggle seems to be how to accomplish this while simultaneously addressing such concerns as appropriation of mental health services, mental health social policy, social justice and the recognition of strengths, not merely weaknesses, among all people.

When Dr. Minor was placed in mental health institutions, the conditions were deplorable. There were no sound treatments for mental illness in his day. Despite this, he was able to make significant contributions to the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, an important literary work.

Today, thanks to neurobiological advancements and an understanding of therapeutic factors that lead to recovery, there is hope for people with mental illness. But hope is elusive for those who live in a world in which the pain and shame of social stigma outweighs the yearning for wellness.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Roger Verdon September 20, 2010 at 8:22 am

Just as a sidenote to this story, which is a great read. Simon Winchester, the author, wanted to write about the making of the Oxford Dictionary, but his publisher thought that was too dry a story. Hence, the additional angle of William Chestor Minor, whose story really makes the Oxford tale much more compelling. Winchester did a great job on this book and it is well worth reading. I can’t say the same for his book on the San Franicisco quake, Crack in the World, which was a geology major’s dream, and a reader’s nightmare. Perhaps it was my poor grades in geology that led me to drag through his book, but nevertheless, it is not the definitive book I would recommend concerning that bit of American history.

Despite illness, Dr. Minor had a great deal to contribute. His example is quite helpful when discussing stigma and how mentally ill individuals are perceived.

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