Amid talk of Columbia’s controversial Bull Street redevelopment project, a name that surfaces frequently is the historic Babcock Building, which will be saved from demolition.
But just who was this Babcock guy?
Charles S. Bryan has the answer. Babcock is the subject of the physician-historian’s 12th book: Asylum Doctor: James Woods Babcock and the Red Plague of Pellagra, which was just published by the University of South Carolina Press.
From 1891 until 1914, Babcock was the superintendent of the South Carolina Insane Asylum, later called the South Carolina Hospital for the Insane and many years later the South Carolina State Hospital.
To Columbia residents, though, it was known simply by its location.
“‘Bull Street’ meant the crazies,” says Bryan, in the same way that the term “bedlam” entered the language from the nickname of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill in London.
In a twist of history, South Carolina was the first state in the Deep South and only the third state in the nation to create a public institution to house the mentally ill. The asylum opened in 1828, which was, Dr. Bryan explains, “a prosperous time for South Carolina.”
But as the state’s economy crashed after the Civil War, the institution that had been one of the earliest in the nation became one of the worst.
Bryan’s book makes it clear that Babcock was a good doctor (the state’s first fully trained psychiatrist) and a man of “idealism, energy and vision,” but a poor administrator and one who was inept in dealing with political officials. The institution was overcrowded, underfunded and politically contentious. Bull Street and similar institutions around the country became “convenient places to warehouse inconvenient people,” Bryan writes.
Amid those poor conditions, however, Babcock played a key role in fighting a national problem: the suddenly emerging disease of pellagra — a skin condition that often proved fatal. Between 1907 and 1915, a total of 1,478 patients at the Columbia institution died of the disease.
Babcock was one of the first physicians in the United States to identify the disease. Although he did not find a cure himself, the alarm he sounded led to a series of national conferences in Columbia as health experts debated how to combat the disease.
A hotly contested point within the public health community was whether pellagra was a contagious infection caused by germs or a result of poor nutrition. The ultimate answer was that the disease was caused by poor diet — the lack of what we know today as niacin or vitamin B3 — and easily curable and preventable among people who had reasonably balanced diets, which the poor and the institutionalized did not.
That conclusion was highly controversial because, Bryan says, it represented “the inconvenient truth that the root cause was poverty.”
For the poverty-stricken South, Bryan says, “pellagra became a badge of shame” in the early part of the 20th century. It came at a time that was the region’s “nadir of self-esteem.”
Bryan’s book is a combination of biography of Babcock, history of the state hospital and chronicle of the long but successful battle against pellagra.
The book was 15 years in the making, and the historical research by the author was painstaking. Charts of the death rates and other statistics for the Columbia institution are based on Bryan’s own research into primary documents from the era — raw documents that occupy six linear feet of shelf space at USC’s South Caroliniana Library and had not been cataloged when Bryan began his investigation.
The work is a striking testimony to the extraordinary commitment of Bryan, a nationally recognized expert on infectious diseases and a professor emeritus at USC (where he literally wrote the textbook on the subject). The footnotes, bibliography and index of his book account for roughly one third of the book’s 402 pages. He has filed his data on Excel spreadsheets with the South Caroliniana Library so other scholars can follow or check his research.
Bryan’s commitment to medical education and medical history has not gone unnoticed. Last October, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian award presented by the state of South Carolina. And while officially retired from USC, he remains extraordinarily active in the medical community, working regularly at Providence Hospital as well as consulting with various medical groups.
The 72-year-old’s physician-historian’s curriculum vitae runs 27 pages — and counting.
Bryan’s story of James Babcock, the state mental institution, and the battle against pellagra is not only an outline of an important era in South Carolina history, but also a testament to the medical knowledge, scholarship and commitment of the author.
More on Babcock book: Historic Columbia will host a special presentation featuring Dr. Charles S. Bryan speaking about and signing his new book, Asylum Doctor: James Woods Babcock and the Red Plague of Pellagra, on Tuesday, July 29, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Robert Mills Carriage House at 1616 Blanding St.
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