Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Related to Disability

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An Overview



This guide provides an overview of manuscript collections, printed materials, visual materials, and artifacts at the Massachusetts Historical Society that contain information related to disability.


This guide provides an overview of manuscript collections, printed materials, visual materials, and artifacts at the Massachusetts Historical Society related to disability. In discussing disability and people with disabilities, this guide covers a diverse range of experiences, including physical, cognitive, psychological, and other types of disability. It does not represent a detailed inventory of MHS holdings, but rather a general survey of collections and items related to the topic.

Archival collections related to disability have historically been described with medical language, perpetuating a clinical understanding of the subject and framing disability as a pathological condition or an individual problem. Descriptions have privileged medical authorities over impacted communities and individuals. Consequently, this guide works to center the voices of these communities and individuals by using preferred terminology and description and by building a more inclusive understanding of disability-related holdings at the MHS. The guide will continue to be revised as relevant collections are discovered or acquired.

The vast majority of MHS collections, printed materials, visual materials, and artifacts on disability originate from affluent families, institutions, and individuals. As a result, these voices are disproportionately represented. For additional material documenting some of the ways in which disability intersects with race, gender, sexuality, class, and other identities, see the MHS guides to collections related to African American history, Native American history, the history of sexuality, and the economically disenfranchised.

This subject guide is divided into five sections: personal accounts and artifacts, medicine and institutionalization, soldiers and veterans with disabilities, education, and disability advocacy and law. These sections reflect the holdings of the MHS and are arranged in order of prominence; i.e., from largest to smallest. There is some overlap between sections; for example, personal accounts appear throughout the guide.

Personal accounts and artifacts includes first-hand or second-hand accounts of disability within personal papers, correspondence, and autobiographical works. Personal tools and items are also listed in this category. Medicine and institutionalization primarily contains personal and organizational papers related to the medical treatment, institutionalization, and incarceration of people with disabilities. Soldiers and veterans with disabilities focuses on records that document the experiences of soldiers and noncombatant officers during and after military conflicts. Education covers the education of people with disabilities as depicted in personal papers, correspondence, publications, and artifacts. And disability advocacy and law describes materials related to campaigns for improved legal rights and public policy.

The Detailed Description below includes links to catalog records and collection guides from which researchers can request materials. This guide is extensive, but not comprehensive; it does not include all the collections and items related to disability held by the MHS. For additional information, search the MHS catalog ABIGAIL or contact the library for assistance.

Detailed Description

Personal Accounts and Artifacts

The MHS holds many personal accounts of disability, primarily correspondence, diaries, and personal papers. Included are first-hand accounts in letters and diaries of individuals with disabilities, as well as second-hand accounts from family, friends, and others.

First-hand accounts of physical and mental health appear most often in correspondence, diaries, and autobiographical statements and publications. Volume 10 of the Matthew Ridley papers includes letters from 24 July 1756 to 18 October 1787 documenting Ridley's experience with depression. Correspondence between Louisa Davis Minot and Catharine Maria Sedgwick in the Minot-Rackemann family papers, written in 1845, discusses Sedgwick's anxiety. The Worthington Chauncey Ford papers include correspondence and writings of Ford's brother Paul Leicester Ford, a novelist and biographer who suffered a spinal injury as an infant. The Marian Lawrence Peabody papers detail the life of this Boston socialite and philanthropist, her anxiety and depression, and her visits to the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric treatment facility in Stockbridge. A 1933 testimonial by Mary J. Newhall Breed describes her unemployment, her husband's unemployment, and difficulties stemming from their age and physical disabilities.

The MHS also holds printed autobiographical accounts by people with disabilities. Items of note include the 1835 book Anecdotes of the Blind by Abram V. Courtney and the 1892 book A Blind Man's Offering by Benjamin B. Bowen.

Second-hand accounts of disability appear frequently in family papers. The David Cobb papers contain two 1795 letters from Samuel S. Wilde related to Cobb's son and his experience with mental illness. The Smith-Carter family papers include a 23 October 1797 letter from Abigail Adams to William Smith about her daughter Abigail Adams Smith's depression. Correspondence between Timothy Pickering and Rebecca Pickering in the Timothy Pickering papers, written between 1804 and 1807, discusses the mental health of their sons. Letters to Dr. Abiel Heywood of Concord consist of pleas for aid on behalf of Nancy Barron, who had an unidentified mental illness and was later confined to Concord Asylum. Genealogical papers and the Marion Elberta (Howe) Senechal diaries, part of the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. family papers, contain material on the mental health of Frank Irving Howe, Jr. The David Richards family papers include papers related to the physical and mental health of Esther "Etta" Loring Richards.

Accounts of disability and daily life feature prominently in collections of members of the Sedgwick family of Stockbridge. Included is material related to Pamela Sedgwick's and Henry Dwight Sedgwick's experiences with mental illness in the Sedgwick family papers; Henry Dwight Sedgwick's mental health and Catharine Maria Sedgwick's involvement in mental health work and the treatment of mental illness in the Catharine Maria Sedgwick papers; and Charles Sedgwick's depression and death in entries from Katharine Sedgwick's 1841 diary in the Charles Sedgwick papers.

The topic of suicide appears frequently in second-hand accounts of disability. The Winslow family memorial contains material on Isaac Winslow (1743-1793), his experience with depression, and his suicide in 1793. A 1788 letter to Perez Morton by Frances T. Apthorp includes suicide notes. The George S. Emerson diaries describe Emerson's depression; he died by suicide in 1848. Entries in the diaries of Frederic Cunningham, Emerson's peer at Harvard University, discuss the suicide further. Additional collections at the MHS with material on suicide include the Sohier-Brimmer family papers, which contain a letter from Josiah Quincy, Jr. related to the 1848 suicide of Edward B. Phillips; the Luman Boyden missionary journals, which discuss suicide among indigent Boston communities; and the Sturgis-Hooper family papers, which include letters about the 1885 suicide of Marian "Clover" (Hooper) Adams. The Sturgis-Hooper papers also discuss the mental health of Clover's brother Edward "Ned" Hooper and Susan Sturgis Bigelow.

The Frederic Augustus Eustis papers include a detailed log of African American men, women, and children enslaved on the southern plantations that Eustis managed. The log identifies enslaved people who were elderly or disabled. And the Fox family papers contain the papers of George W. Fox (1834-1917). Due to a physical disability, Fox could not serve in the military during the Civil War. Instead, he acted as president of the American Unitarian Association during the war, the only layman ever to hold the position.

The MHS also holds tools used by individuals with disabilities, among them several noctographs, writing frames designed for blind or partially sighted people. Items belonging to William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859), a scientific historian with poor eyesight, include a noctograph and stylus, an ivory stylus used to write his History of the Conquest of Peru, and a noctograph and stylus currently on long-term loan to the William Hickling Prescott House in Boston. Similar items belonging to American historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893) include a metal noctograph and a noctograph with a wooden frame and brass wire.

Medicine and Institutionalization

A number of MHS collections relate to the medical treatment and institutionalization of people with disabilities. In the United States, private institutions and public welfare organizations assumed primary responsibility for developing a common understanding of disability. Disability was usually framed as an individual burden and deficiency, and thus charitable and medical organizations often treated disability as a personal problem.

The majority of organizations invested in the care of individuals with disabilities were charitable organizations. The Boston Overseers of the Poor records include three ledgers documenting the Boston Asylum's operations between 1795 and 1823. Established in 1692, the Boston Overseers of the Poor provided food, supplies, and fiscal support to impoverished communities in Boston and operated facilities for those in need. The register of paupers at Danvers Alms House in Peabody, dating from 1841 to 1859, contains descriptions of people with mental illnesses and intellectual and physical disabilities. The register, kept by superintendent Adino Page, lists names, ages, residences, dates of commitment and discharge, and other information. Administrative documents in the Humane Society of Massachusetts records include records from 1816 on the founding of the Asylum for the Insane. In the 20th century, the Lend a Hand Society provided wheelchairs and other medical equipment to individuals in need.

Materials created by or related to the Channing family document its role in the treatment of people with mental illness in Boston, Brookline, and Wellesley. These include printed content in the Channing family papers pertaining to the Channing Asylum in Brookline; medical lectures on "insanity" and other papers of Boston obstetrician Walter Channing (1786-1876); and papers of psychiatrist Walter Channing (1849-1921), including diaries with descriptions of patient appointments, writings, professional correspondence, and reports. Channing opened a psychiatric hospital in Brookline in 1879; served as chairman of the board of trustees of the Boston State Hospital from 1908 to 1914; and established Channing Sanitarium in Wellesley in 1916.

Private institutions--hospitals, asylums, prisons, and group homes--are prominently represented in MHS holdings, particularly the McLean Asylum for the Insane (now McLean Hospital). Letters to Benjamin Seaver discuss the health of Seaver's wife Sarah (Johnson) Seaver, who was a patient at the McLean Asylum under Dr. Luther V. Bell; the bulk of the collection dates from 1854. Similarly, the diaries of Richard Newell in the Newell family papers describe the treatment of Newell's first wife Lydia Ann (Poor) Newell at the McLean Asylum in 1875. The Henry Lee Shattuck papers include material related to state mental health institutions, the Massachusetts Society for the Protection of the Insane and Mentally Infirm, the Massachusetts Society for Mental Hygiene, and McLean Hospital. The Francis Blake papers contain correspondence about the health of Edward Wilson. Wilson spent time at the Massachusetts State Hospital at Taunton and McLean Hospital. The Society also holds several reports of the Boston Orthopedic Institution, a 19th-century hospital for individuals with orthopedic disabilities, including reports from 1844, 1845, 1850, and 1860 by Dr. John B. Brown (1784-1862).

Additional papers at the MHS related to private institutions include an 1833 account of the New-York Institution for the Blind detailing the history of the institution, its practices, and similar practices in the United States and worldwide; an 1833 letter to Joseph E. Sprague regarding thirteen individuals with mental illness currently incarcerated in the Ipswich town jail and their possible removal to the Worcester Insane Hospital; the Elizabeth Dorr diaries describing visits to the Worcester Insane Asylum, Hartford School for the Deaf, and Perkins School for the Blind between 1842 and 1854; materials in the Rockwood Hoar papers about the Worcester Insane Hospital, for which Hoar (1855-1906) served as a trustee; and letters of Mary (Watson) Willson in the Dana family correspondence regarding the institutionalization and death of Willson's son Jared between 1887 and 1889. Family correspondence in the Bowditch-Knauth-Jones-Childs family papers includes 1917 and 1918 letters between Ethel Bowditch Jones and her sister, Fanny Bowditch Katz, related to Ethel's mental health. Ethel experienced postpartum depression following the birth of her fourth child, and the letters date from the time of her institutionalization. The Robert G. Valentine family papers include correspondence and other materials related to Asa Palmer French and his mental health after 1933. These materials also discuss the Wiswell Sanitarium in Wellesley.

Charitable institutions that provided services or housing for elderly people often dealt with disability issues, as well. Collections documenting the ways disability intersected with old age include the records of Sailors' Snug Harbor of Boston, established in 1852 for the purpose of "relieving and supporting decrepit, infirm or aged sailors," and the records of the Home for Aged Colored Women, which include details about the health of specific residents.

Published material from various institutions includes annual reports of the Adams Nervine Asylum; American Asylum, at Hartford, for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb; Boston Lunatic Hospital; Boston Nursery for Blind Babies; Consumptives' Home; Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children; Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb; McLean Asylum for the Insane; New England Industrial School for the Education and Instruction of Deaf Mutes; New England Institution for the Education of the Blind; New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane; Sarah Fuller Home for Little Deaf Children; St. Luke's Home for Convalescents; and many others.

The MHS also holds an electric battery wired to a pair of sponges, developed around 1890 by inventor Thomas Hall of Boston. The device was used by Francis Parkman (1823-1893) to apply electric currents to his eyes as a treatment for his poor eyesight.

Soldiers and Veterans with Disabilities

A number of MHS collections contain material pertaining to the experiences of soldiers and veterans with disabilities. The bulk of this material consists of records created by individuals working on behalf of medical and charitable organizations, but personal papers and correspondence are also prevalent.

Most of these holdings date from the Civil War, including the papers of Frederick Newman Knapp of Plymouth. Knapp was a clergyman, teacher, and superintendent of the Special Relief Department, U.S. Sanitary Commission, during the Civil War. His papers document general aid to soldiers, battlefield relief, provisions for sick and wounded soldiers and prisoners, aid to discharged soldiers, work on transports and at hospitals, and other subjects related to his work with the commission. The MHS also holds the diaries of Henry Bromfield Rogers, who served as an agent for the commission; records of the New England Women's Auxiliary Association, a branch of the commission; and many printed items about the commission's work. In addition, the papers of William Milo Olin, secretary of state of Massachusetts from 1891 until his death in 1911, include records of Olin's involvement with the Grand Army of the Republic, such as requests for aid for veterans with disabilities.

Letters, diaries, and reminiscences of Civil War soldiers often contain descriptions of injuries sustained and medical care. These include the papers of Joseph H. Caldwell, Elijah Couillard, Clarence Holbrook Denny, George Edward Fowle, Moses Moody Ordway, Oliver A. Ricker, Henry H. Robbins, Flavel King Sheldon, Asa D. Smith, Frank L. Smith, John Hill White, and many others. The MHS also holds a December 1863 letter to Lewis E. Wentworth about the amputation of his leg; a memoir, correspondence, diaries, and photographs of James McWhinnie, whose leg was amputated after the Battle of Chancellorsville; and papers of U.S. Navy veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Lewis Augustine Horton (1842-1916), who lost both of his arms in a steamship explosion. Included in this last collection is Horton's autobiographical account of his Civil War service.

Among the Garrison family papers at the MHS is material related to pension claims of African American soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Veterans of this regiment wrote to George Thompson Garrison after the war and described medical problems resulting from their military service, such as disabilities that kept them from working.

Collections dating from World War I include the Sedgwick family additions, which contain correspondence and personal writings of Christina Davenport Sedgwick Marquand. Some of this material documents Marquand's work at the Clinic for Functional Re-education of Disabled Soldiers, Sailors, and Civilians in New York City in 1918 and 1919. The clinic, affiliated with Cornell University Medical College, was among the first to offer rehabilitative services to returning members of the military. The MHS also holds the John Baptiste Webster papers. Webster (1886-1955) served in the United States Army Medical Corps during the war as an orthopedic surgeon, and his papers include notes on the treatment of injured soldiers.

The Samuel L. Barres papers consist primarily of personal correspondence documenting the experiences of Samuel "Sammy" Barres, a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. On 4 December 1944, Barres lost his legs while serving with the 80th Infantry Division. His letters detail his recovery, fittings for prosthetic legs, and adaptation to civilian life.


The MHS holds a number of collections related to the education of people with disabilities. Records on this subject, much like those on medical treatment and institutionalization, largely treat disability as an individual failing to be overcome. Personal papers, correspondence, artifacts, and published materials by and about charitable organizations and educational institutions comprise the majority of this material.

Several items at the MHS relate to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Founded in 1829, the Perkins School was the first educational institution for blind students in the United States. The MHS has three printed works by school trustee and second director Michael Anagnos (1837-1906): Education of the Blind: Historical Sketch of Its Origin, Rise and Progress (1882), The Education of the Blind in the United States of America: Its Principles, Development and Results (1904), and Special Reference Library of Books Relating to the Blind (1907). The MHS also holds a Braille wristwatch, a desk Braille slate, and a pocket Braille slate used by Anastasia "Annie" Walsh, a 1912 graduate of the Perkins School. Of particular interest is an 1842 sheet music cover of the Mount Washington quick step as performed by the Boston Brigade Band. This piece was composed by Alexander Messinger, a pupil at the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind (later the Perkins School for the Blind). The papers of George E. Ellis include an 1891 letter written by Helen Keller, who attended the Perkins School, soliciting a donation toward the education of another student named Thomas Stringer, and the Grenville H. Norcross autograph collection contains a letter by Stringer, written in 1899. Both Keller's and Stringer's letters were written on noctographs.

MHS materials concerning Laura Dewey Bridgman (1829-1889), a student at the Perkins School for the Blind and the first American with deafblindness to receive a formal education, include letters from Bridgman to her teacher and biographer Mary Swift Lamson (1822-1909), part of the Lamson family papers; a facsimile of the handwriting and composition of Bridgman; a graphic depicting Bridgman and Oliver Caswell as painted by Alvan Fisher (1792-1863); and multiple published biographies.

The Henry Pierce family papers contain letters from teacher Mary Elizabeth Pierce and correspondents regarding the education of children with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities.

The MHS also holds an 1883 pamphlet titled Upon a Method of Teaching Language to a Very Young Congenitally Deaf Child by Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922).

Disability Advocacy and Law

A number of the collections pertaining to disability history at the MHS concern advocacy for people with disabilities by individuals and organizations.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts records contain a significant amount of material documenting disability advocacy. Series I of Record Group I includes papers related to the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health and people with mental illness between 1967 and 1969. Additional records related to mental health can be found in Record Groups II and III, including records about campaigns for the voting rights of prisoners and people with mental illnesses in the 1970s (Carton 65); records of the Mental Patients Treatment Unit at Worcester State Hospital for Women between 1977 and 1979 (Carton 74); and subject files related to psychiatric drug laws (Carton 93).

A number of MHS collections include correspondence by and related to Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887), a 19th-century activist and nurse who lobbied for the improved treatment of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These include the Appleton family papers, the Coolidge-Lowell family papers, the Caroline Wells Healey Dall papers, the Fay-Mixter family papers, the Edward B. Hall autograph collection, the Joseph H. Hayward papers, the Perry-Clarke collection, the Slade-Rogers family papers, and many others. Other materials of note are a 21 May 1850 letter from Horace Mann to Mary Peabody Mann about Dix's activities, biographical material about her in the William Henry Lyon sermons and the Sable Island (Nova Scotia) papers, and multiple published biographies.

MHS material related to courts, legislation, and political campaigns affecting people with disabilities include the Lemuel Shaw papers. Shaw (1781-1861) served as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and played an important role in the 1844 case Commonwealth v. Rogers, in which he attempted to apply the argument of "irresistible impulse" to legal insanity tests. The Leverett Saltonstall senatorial papers II include legislative records related to Mental Health Week and mental health in general between 1953 and 1965.

Preferred Citation

When using the items described in this guide, researchers should cite the collection containing the item.

Access Terms

For information about the collections and items described in this guide, consult ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Subject Headings

Blind--Institutional care.
Bridgman, Laura Dewey, 1829-1889.
Deaf children--Education.
Deaf--Institutional care.
Deafblind people--Education.
Deafblind women.
Depression, Mental.
Disabled veterans.
Dix, Dorothea Lynde, 1802-1887.
Howe, S. G. (Samuel Gridley),1801-1876.
Insanity (Law).
Keller, Helen, 1880-1968.
McLean Asylum for the Insane.
McLean Hospital.
Mental illness.
Mentally ill--Care.
Perkins School for the Blind.
Psychiatric hospitals.
Public welfare.
Teachers of deafblind people.
Worcester Insane Hospital.