Penitentiary practice: healthcare and medicine in Minnesota State Prison, 1855-1930

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Penitentiary practice: healthcare and medicine in Minnesota State Prison, 1855-1930

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Medicine in American prisons came to be defined by a characteristic set of health concerns and treatment challenges through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Foremost among them was the essential tension between the prison's retributive, disciplinary, or reformatory objectives and the ideals of care at the core of medical practice. This dissertation examines the history of the American prison and its population by considering the prison as a medically therapeutic and rehabilitative institution constrained by its punitive mission, using the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater as a primary case study. It situates the prison within a historiography of medical institutions that has heretofore focused on hospitals and asylums. Quantitative data and methods help to expose the demographic characteristics of the prison population between1850 and 1930. Using institutional medical records, I show how population-level characteristics shaped medical practice in American prisons. Additionally, I employ statistical methods to analyze quantitative material available in the state archives of Minnesota to contextualize the stories of individual prisons and prisoners. These qualitative and quantitative data sustain a historical narrative and a sociological depiction of the prison as a medical institution.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertsation. November 2013. Major: History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Advisors: John Eyler. Jennifer Gunn. 1 computer file (PDF); ix, 247 pages, appendices A-I.

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Charleroy, Margaret Lynn. (2013). Penitentiary practice: healthcare and medicine in Minnesota State Prison, 1855-1930. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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