We need the tonic of wildness. Poets know it. Gardeners know it. Dog walkers know it. Why did it take the medical profession so long to figure it out?by Cal Flyn / July 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the summer of 1901, the Manhattan State Hospital—the largest psychiatric hospital in the world—was facing a crisis. Tuberculosis was sweeping New York. It was the leading cause of death in the city that year, and many patients being admitted into the asylum were also physically sick with TB upon arrival. What could they do with all the contagious, “tuberculous insane”?
Alexander Macdonald, the hospital’s superintendent, had an idea. He set up two huge canvas tents in the grounds of the hospital, which was located on Wards Island, a small, sparsely populated island between Manhattan and Queens. Each tent was large enough to house 20 beds. At that time there was no known treatment for tuberculosis, but many doctors subscribed to the idea that clean, cold air could be of benefit—hence the proliferation of mountain sanatoria in the latter half of the 19th century. “In pleasant weather one side of the tent was kept constantly open,” the psychiatrist Clarence Floyd Haviland recalled later, “so that the interior was literally flooded with pure air.”
The results of the Wards Island experiment were encouraging. After a year, 62 of 81 residents of this outdoor ward had survived—far more than would have been expected given the advanced state the infection had reached in these patients. And more intriguingly, the outdoor lifestyle seemed to be bringing with it other, psychiatric, benefits. Many campers showed marked improvements in their mental state.
So noticeable were the effects that the next year, the hospital extended the encampment fourfold so as to offer beds to non-TB sufferers. Patients gained weight and improved in muscle tone. Their cheeks grew ruddy. “Their delusions became less prominent, their hallucinations less vivid,” said Haviland. Suicidal, homicidal, manic and destructive behaviour dropped away.
“Camping,” concluded Haviland in retrospect, “exerts a most health-giving influence… In the restoration of mental health, the effect of the unrestrained life in tents appears to be of vital importance.”
The vogue for “tent therapy” in psychiatric hospitals that followed these experiments seemed like a novelty, but the concept of nature as a restorative force has been around for millennia. It is invoked in Daoist and Ayurvedic texts, and touched upon in the work of Hippocrates; it is threaded through the thinking of the Romantics and the…