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Ep6: "Men Are Like Plants" with Dr Linnea Kuglitsch

Linnea Kuglitsch is a historian and archaeologist who studies therapeutic landscapes, institutional life, health, and medicine in the United States from the late-eighteenth century onwards. In 2019 she graduated from the University of Manchester after completing her doctoral research, titled “Materia Medica, Materia Moral,” which offered new insights into the institutional treatment and management of mental illness in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a collaboration between Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the Department of Archaeology. Her hobbies include conducting ‘pedestrian survey’ on ‘therapeutic landscapes’ —a.k.a., hiking old sanatorium trails—and swooning over nineteenth-century glassware.


- “Men are like plants:” Environment and health in 19th-century America

- The use and development of the Hospital grounds

- “A new system of landscaping:” Closing the Hospital’s ‘moral’ era

- Lessons from psychiatry’s roots: Nature and modern treatment

In 1869, social reformer Dorthea Dix journeyed west to survey provisions for the insane in American frontier. The institution that Dix encountered in Washington was “little better than a barn.”[i] The sixteen insane persons in territorial care lived in damp, crowded quarters in an old building in Monticello. Their bunks were crammed into dark, un-plastered cells that measured about 45 square feet (dimension just larger than a modern king-sized bed). Published in local papers, Dix’s letter to Governor Alvan Flanders criticized the “inadequate and unsuitable care” the territorial government offered its most vulnerable.[ii]

Immediately, the Territorial Legislature set to finding an alternative. Within a year the Legislature purchased an old military garrison about a mile outside of the settlement of Steilacoom. Consisting of 25 buildings, the site seemed suitable for conversion into an asylum. In 1871, the patients—now numbering twenty-one—journeyed to their new quarters in a small wagon train. Located on 350 acres of land, the converted garrison had all the benefits that Monticello lacked, as the Weekly Pacific Tribune of Olympia attested:

“The whole party seemed greatly delighted…with the pure air, lovely scenery and pleasant surroundings. We have no doubt that in these new scenes, and under the generous provisions of their new landlord, these poor people will improve rapidly in physical health and that the reason of many will be restored.”[iii]

This emphasis on providing treatment in a specific type of environment may seem unusual to the modern reader, but to social reformers, medical authorities, and everyday people living in the nineteenth century, the influence of the environment on human character was a given.

This post fleshes out Episode 6 of In Pursuit of Plants. Below, you’ll find a discussion of three decades of horticultural history of the hospital and its gardens that is grounded in the field of historical archaeology. Historical archaeology is a discipline that uses different forms of material culture to understand the human experience. Analysing the archaeological and documentary records that survive offers a jumping off point for exploring old histories in new, fruitful ways.[iv]

“Men are like plants”: Environment and health in 19th-century America

The idea that the environment influenced the experience of people who within it has a long history in the United States. "Men are like plants,” eighteenth-century writer Henry De Crevecoeur advised in Letters from an American Farmer, “The goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow.” The idea that a person’s surroundings influenced their bodies, minds, and actions—a concept known today as environmental determinism—reached new heights in the nineteenth century.[v] This emphasis came into especially clear focus as the material and social environment of the nation continued shifted and changed.

Both medical and lay authorities linked a perceived rise in cases of insanity to the development of the urban lifestyle. The previous generations’ nation, as historian David Rothman has argued, was defined by small, insular communities and an agrarian lifestyle. [vi] The church, the community, and the family had provided a source of stability and support in times of trouble and need. As industrialisation and urbanisation swept the nation, large numbers of people travelled to cities to live and work—leaving professionals and laymen alike theorising as to how the conditions of urban life tied into this rise.

The phenomenon was attributed to many factors. Newcomers to the city worked long hours at difficult and dangerous jobs with little job security. By leaving their traditional acres, they disrupted health family structure, which was deemed essential to the development of morality and self-control. They had more opportunities to participate in unsavoury activities like drinking, betting, and prostitution. Conditions for the poor were worst of all, with men and women crowded into small, dirty tenements exhausted collapsed ‘polite’ social barriers and damaged their physical health. Together, these factors unseated the habits and practices needed to sustain a healthy mind and body. [vii]

If insanity was, as medical statistician Edward Jarvis wrote, a part of “the price we pay for civilization,” so too were the establishments developed to care for the insane.[viii] Institutions like the lunatic asylum reached new heights of popularity in nineteenth century America. Tasked with confining and reforming those whose persons, values, and behaviours breached acceptable norms—the sick and elderly, the unemployed, the helpless, and the criminal—these institutions were a key feature of the American landscape. [ix] Separated from society, self-contained, located in rural areas, these institutions promised to re-build their inmates into the ideal citizen—or, at the very least, to prevent them from disrupting life in the wider community.

One of the mechanisms employed at these institutions was placement in rural settings, distant from cityscape. Exposure to the healthy moralising forces of the ‘natural world’—in this case, the idealised countryside—was, as discussed above, envisioned as a means of restoring disordered minds to a state of being that resonated with mainstream ideologies.

Garrisons, grounds, and gardens: Developing a curative landscape

The patients living at the Garrison began interacting with the grounds almost as soon as the new institution was established. Within a few years of opening, large swathes of land had been developed into fields, orchards, and pasture required for raising livestock, fruits, and vegetables. A substantial percentage of the overall acreage persisted as prairie, forest, and marshland, allowing patients to taking the walks, carriage rides, and fishing trips that superintendents believed to be a key part of their treatment.

By the 1880s, the old garrison buildings were badly worn down. In 1886, after years of advocacy from superintendent John Waughop, the territorial legislature provided $100,000 for erecting a new, purpose-built structure for the Hospital. The new building opened its doors a year later. Over the next two years patients were slowly rehoused from the deteriorating garrison buildings.[x] By 1889, the excitement over the new building had subsided. This left Hospital authorities free to shift their attention shifted to a new element of the Hospital landscape: its grounds.

“Exercise and amusement out of doors,” wrote American physician Robley Dunglison, “are amongst the most important of agencies adopted in the treatment of insanity.”[xi] Gardens even received specialist attention—as in 1869, noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead was hired to plan the grounds and gardens of Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane in New York. [xii] Lacking the same resources and already permanently located, advocates and planners at the Hospital had to make do with what was available to them. This turned out to be a challenge, however. The soil in front of the new building was very poor; it grew only dry, yellow prairie grass--a far throw from the soft, green lawns recommended by noted designer Thomas Kirkbride, who believed attractive gardens essential to tempting patients into outdoor recreation.[xiii]

In 1890, Waughop initiated a landscaping program to improve the appearance of the immediate surrounding of the new building.[xiv] Over the next two years, male patients established large garden and lawn in front of the new building by spreading fertile soil hauled by male patients from the shallows of a nearby lake over the surface of the ground and planting it in white clover (Figure 1). Eliza Waughop, the superintendent’s wife, selected and arranged ornamental plants and trees around this patch of lawn to create a pleasant and suitable place for patients to attend concerts, dances, and picnics.

Figure 1: Topographical map of the Hospital grounds produced by H.P. Bowlby in 1906. Note the landscaped lawn and gardens directly to the east of the Hospital façade, seen enlarged on the right. Image courtesy of the Western State Hospital.

Once the soil quality was improved, another challenge arose: acquiring the large numbers of plants needed to maintain the landscape. Buying from local nurseries was costly and annual plants and flowers needed to be refreshed every year. To reduce these costs, the Hospital established a horticultural program. In 1892, the Hospital opened its first greenhouse.[xv] Tasked with supplying plants for the landscaping program, the greenhouse employed at least ten patients daily.[xvi]

Employment in the greenhouses was popular and remained a key part of institutional life into the mid-twentieth century; the Hospital cycled through six individual greenhouses, each larger and more sophisticated than the last. These improvements allowed patients to raise a wide range of plants and flowers to be used in the grounds and on the wards.

A glance at an inventory taken in 1902 reaffirms the importance of keeping up and enhancing the gardens and grounds.[xvii] In addition to several thousand flower pots, numerous gardening tools were kept on hand. Grass edgers, clippers, and push mowers were used to maintain the lawns. Augers, cant hooks, and other tools were used to maintain the exotic and ornamental trees that Waughop and his successors planted in the park east of the administrative building (Figure 2). Trowels and hotbed sashes allowed patients to maintain the flower beds through into the beginning of the colder months.

Figure 2: A photograph of the area of lawn established by patients at the Hospital in the 1890s. Several species of trees, including English oaks, sequoia, redwoods, and Japanese cherries, were planted along the allees. Several flowerbeds are just visible in the mid- and backgrounds of the image. Image courtesy of the Washington State Archives

Archival evidence is quite helpful in painting a picture of patient life and hospital regime, but there are other approaches. Including one major one: garden archaeology. Garden archaeology tends to focus on locating and examining the remnants of physical features in the ornamental gardens. The presence and arrangement of structures and features like bandstands, paths and features like fountains or follies, and even planting beds can be tested for using remote sensing technologies such as ground penetrating radar, aerial photography, or soil resistivity testing.

Where gardens are recent, and its features are intact or close to the surface, pedestrian (on-foot) survey can shed light on landscape features. Like tapping on a wall to find the joists beneath the plaster, a change in the sensation of the ground may flag up the presence of a feature. Once the presence of these features has been reasonably identified—and ‘floating’ soil samples, or screening for the botanical matter that will help them determine what types of plants grew in the area throughout the site’s history.[xviii]

While remote sensing and pedestrian survey are incredibly valuable in many cases, these techniques were not viable at the Hospital site, which remains in use as psychiatric institution. Conducting these types of landscape survey would be disruptive to the Hospital, while many of the survey recording techniques (i.e., photography) endanger patients’ privacy. Meanwhile, several decades of subsequent landscaping efforts are liable to have obscured out picture of the 19th and early 20th century gardens, making this form of survey less viable. Instead, archaeological insight into the garden came from another angle: the analysis of materials discarded in the Hospital dump.

Figure 3: A page from Charles Hovey's article, “Some Remarks on the sizes of Flower Pots usually employed for Plants,” included in the Magazine of Horticulture. The measurements that Hovey provided a baseline for distinguishing between different sizes of flower pot present in the Hospital collection.

In 2016, excavations to install a fence line on the property encountered an archaeological deposit containing thousands of historic artefacts. Alongside medicine bottles, plate fragments, and building hardware, bits of the flower pots used in the Greenhouses were recovered. Reconstructing the size of the vessels from the curve of larger base fragments made it clear that several sizes of pots were in use when the dump accumulated. Among more notable finds, sherds (or fragments) from several “thumb” pots—vessels whose bases measured about an inch in diameter—were present. In horticulture, theses specialised vessels were used for one purpose: starting new plants from seeds and cuttings. Larger pot bases were also present, including examples hat matched what American horticulturalist Charles Hovey referred to as No. 2 and No. 4 pots (Figure 3).

The spectrum of pot sizes and volumes underscores the significance of horticulture at the hospital. Horticulturalists held that plants needed to be moved through a succession of pots as they grew. Pots were necessary for more sensitive indoor plants until they died. Hardier landscaping plants were raised in pots until mature enough to be ‘planted out’ to sustain the garden beds and features.[xix]

Archival and archaeological evidence makes it clear that the grounds and gardens played an important role in life at the Hospital. The verdant landscape that the horticultural and landscaping programs created was both a by-product of and a force that acted positively in patients’ treatment.

“A new system of landscaping:” Closing the Hospital’s ‘moral’ era

As approaches to mental illness changed, the landscape of the asylum also shifted. By the mid-1910s, the Hospital was distancing itself from the thoroughly dated concept of moral treatment. In 1914, Superintendent William Keller built a hydrotherapeutic plant on the male side of the building. In hydrotherapy, trained nurses applied different temperatures to the body in different ways in hopes of stimulating the muscles and nervous system.

Unlike moral treatment framework, which traced madness predominantly to the mind, hydrotherapy anchored insanity in the body. This changing perspective on the causation of insanity undermined the therapeutic value of the gardens, grounds, and greenhouses. Cultivating plants, improving the landscape, and enjoying its pleasantries still made good entertainment, but these activities were no longer viewed as part of the treatment process.

These shifts reflected in changes to the Hospital landscape. In 1916, superintendent Keller introduced “a new system of landscaping.” Keller opted to remove the decorative shrubberies planted by his predecessors and strip the lower branches from the trees, creating a landscape characterized by “large open spaces and broad vistas.”[xx] Hardy varieties of osage orange and golden privet were planted in hedges, partitioning the now open landscape. The most drastic effects of this change in institutional policy and practice were visual.

They rippled into other areas of the patient experience, too. With the flowerbeds removed, patients were no longer brought outside to spend time caring for them. No longer required to raise delicate flowers for the gardens, greenhouse horticulture became less significant. The activity became a source of entertainment and distraction rather than a mechanism that contributed directly to treatment.

Lessons from psychiatry’s roots: Nature and modern treatment

The deterministic extent to which medical authorities and social reformers emphasised the importance of place was excessive. However, recent trends in psychology indicate that the way these ideologies materialised in the Hospital landscape and regime may have had tangible and positive impact on patients’ well-being.

At the Hospital, landscaping was conducted in a group setting. Supported by attendants and gardeners, working in the grounds and greenhouses provided patients with opportunities to cultivate a sense of purpose and to foster connections to their peers—two key qualities linked to sensations of well-being.[xxi]

Connections between mental health treatment in the 19th and 21st centuries are stronger than you might think. Modern clinicians are increasingly recognising the role that small, everyday interventions play in enhancing well-being and mitigating the symptoms of mental illness. Many of these small changes, such as dietary management and regular participation in occupational activities, were once prioritised as a part of the moral treatment framework.

In this same vein, a growing body of research suggests that exposure to nature has positive impact on physical and mental wellbeing.[xxii] Building on these findings, some mental health professionals have begun supplementing more traditional behavioural and clinical treatments with ecotherapy, an intervention that seeks to re-connect individual to the natural world by walking or working in natural spaces.

The lessons are, perhaps, more important than ever. In recent years, several key organisations have picked up on a rise in the number of people who reported experiencing poor mental health and lower levels of well-being. In the United Kingdom, approximately 25% of the adult population experiences symptoms of mental illness each year. In the United States, this statistic is even higher.[xxiii] The causes underlying these growing rates of mental well-being are complex, structural, and difficult to address at an individual level—especially when a person is experiencing the symptoms associated with these treatments acutely.

And, if we take away any lessons from the history of the psychiatric treatment in the 19th century, it should be that no treatment exists in isolation. So, take a moment to visit the nearest park. Stop to smell the roses. Or consider growing a few yourself, as the American Horticultural Therapy Association suggests. If you’re feeling really ambitious, consider joining or supporting organisations like Mind or the National Alliance of Mental Illness, which arrange group excursions into parks and nature reserves in many locations. Whatever you choose, you’ll be contributing to a longstanding tradition of looking for peace, meaning, and support in the plants, animals, and other ‘natural’ features of the world around you.


[i] D.L. Dix, “Miss Dix on the Insane,” Weekly Pacific Tribune of Olympia, November 13, 1896, Box 26, Washington State Archives.

[ii] Dix.

[iii] Anonymous, “Hospital for the Insane: Special Correspondence of the Standard,” July 4, 1877, 1, Washington State Archives.

[iv] For more reading on the subject of historical archaeology, take a peek at James Deetz’s (1977) book, In small things forgotten: The archaeology of everyday life in early America, or Martin Hall and Stephen Silliman’s (2006) volume on Historical Archaeology.

[v] Carla Yanni, The Architecture of Madness Insane Asylums in the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[vi] David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1971).

[vii] Rothman; Russell Lopez, “Nineteenth-Century Reform Movements,” in Building American Public Health: Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Health in the United States, ed. Russell Lopez (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2012), 25–46,; G. N. Grob, Mental Illness in America, 1875–1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press. Google Scholar, 1983).

[viii] Edward Jarvis, “On the Supposed Increase of Insanity,” American Journal of Psychiatry 8, no. 4 (1852): 364.

[ix] April M. Beisaw and James G. Gibb, eds., The Archaeology of Institutional Life (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009).

[x] Clara Cooley, “The Western State Hospital, Fort Steilacoom, Washington, History 1871-1950” (Unpublished manuscript, Washington State Archives, 1964).

[xi] Robley Dunglison, General Therapeutics, or Principles of Medical Practice : With Tables of the Chief Remedial Agents and Their Preparations : And of the Different Poisons and Their Antidotes (Philidelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836), 371,

[xii] Katherine Ziff, Asylum on the Hill: History of A Healing Landscape (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2012),; Yanni, The Architecture of Madness Insane Asylums in the United States.

[xiii] Thomas S. Kirkbride, On the Construction, Organisation, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane (New York: Arno Press, 1854),

[xiv] J.W. Waughop, Report of the Superintendent, 1891-2 (Olympia, Washington: O.C. White, State Printer, 1892).

[xv] Waughop.

[xvi] M Goldsmith and A Reed, Report of Conditions in the State Institutions of Washington Together with Recommendations for Needed Changes in Administration and Legislation. (Olympia, Wash: E.L. Boardman, Public Printer, 1912).

[xvii] F.L. Goddard and S.C. Woodruff, “Inventory for the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane,” March 31, 1902, Box 29, Washington State Archives.

[xviii] To learn more about garden archaeology, check out the entry on Garden archaeology in Charles Orser’s Encyclopaedia of Historial Archaeology (2002) or John Currie’s (2005) Garden archaeology: A handbook.

[xix] Goddard and Woodruff, “Inventory for the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane.”

[xx] WN Keller, “Western Washington Hospital For the Insane, Superintendents Report,” in 8th Bienniel Report State Board of Control of Washington 1914-16 (Olympia, Washington: Frank M. Lamborn, Public Printer, 1916), 74.

[xxi] Timothy Darvill et al., Historic Landscapes and Mental Well-Being (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019).

[xxii] Daniel E. Baxter and Luc G. Pelletier, “Is Nature Relatedness a Basic Human Psychological Need? A Critical Examination of the Extant Literature,” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne 60, no. 1 (2019): 21–34,; Colin A. Capaldi et al., “Flourishing in Nature: A Review of the Benefits of Connecting with Nature and Its Application as a Wellbeing Intervention,” International Journal of Wellbeing 5, no. 4 (2015); Jo Barton et al., Green Exercise: Linking Nature, Health and Well-Being (Routledge, 2016).

[xxiii] Ronald C. Kessler et al., “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12-Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 6 (2005): 617–627; Sally McManus and Paul Bebbington, Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a Household Survey (National Centre for Social Research, 2009).

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