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b. 4 June 1860 in La Malbaie, Lower Canada


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STABB, HENRY HUNT, physician and asylum administrator; b. 21 Dec. 1812 in Torquay, England, son of Thomas Stabb; m. Fanny Elizabeth — in Philadelphia, probably in 1854, and they had 11 children, 5 of whom are thought to have survived childhood; d. 17 May 1892 in St John’s.

Henry Hunt Stabb was born into a West Country merchant family that had been engaged in the Newfoundland trade since the 18th century. His father was the resident partner in St John’s of the British-based firm Hunt, Stabb, Preston and Company. Two of Henry’s elder brothers, Ewen and Nicholas, set up businesses on the southern shore of the Avalon peninsula in the 1820s before relocating to St John’s and becoming pillars of the mercantile establishment there. A third brother, Thomas, was a surgeon in Ilfracombe, Devon.

In 1835, while a medical student, Henry visited the colony and at the request of the government vaccinated persons in the Conception Bay area. Two years later he graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an md. His thesis was entitled “On influenza.” He immediately left for Newfoundland to establish a general medical practice in St John’s. Around December 1854 he married in Philadelphia the newly emigrated Fanny Elizabeth, an 18-year-old native of Gotha (German Democratic Republic) whom he had met the previous fall after she had been shipwrecked off the Newfoundland coast.

When Stabb had arrived in St John’s in 1837, the executive and the reform-minded House of Assembly, dominated by Catholic Liberals, had been locked in a bitter struggle over the control of appointments, and the house was anxious to promote Roman Catholics. Yet in 1838 it agreed to Stabb’s appointment as one of four district surgeons, despite the fact that his brothers were closely associated with the opposing, Conservative faction and he was an Anglican. The appalling conditions of “lunatics” housed in basement cells and the sick wards of the St John’s Hospital soon rendered him a vocal advocate of lunacy reform. In November 1847 he was successful, almost single-handed, in persuading the government to establish a state-supported provisional asylum for the insane in a home it had recently leased as a fever hospital. This facility permitted the release of lunatics from their chains and fetters in the St John’s Hospital and local jails and their removal from substandard boarding-houses and private homes, none of which offered any hope of treatment and still less of rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, Stabb maintained his private general practice and continued to press for a permanent asylum built for the purpose along the lines of those achieving a distinct form and status in Great Britain and the United States. In 1853 he finally brought about the beginning of construction under the direction of a government-appointed board of commissioners, of which he was secretary and the chief driving force. The asylum opened in December 1854, one of the first of its kind in British North America [see Joseph Workman], and it would be repeatedly enlarged between 1858 and 1877 under Stabb’s supervision. In August 1846 he had been appointed physician to the intended asylum and in June 1857 he was made resident medical superintendent with tenure. He continued as sole administrator and medical officer to those of the colony’s population institutionalized for mental reasons, on whose behalf he laboured with energy and perseverance, for 43 years. Publicly and privately he was both humanitarian and socially conscious. In 1849 and 1854 he served as secretary to ad hoc boards of health, and in 1867 he was elected president of the new Medical Society of St John’s.

Stabb was an advocate of the fairly recent method of moral treatment for the insane, and following British practice he eschewed all forms of mechanical restraint. His therapeutic régime included good food, fresh air, exercise, recreation, and employment under the direction of a competent and kindly staff – in short, the creation of a healthy physical and mental environment that would encourage patients to remodel their behaviour along socially acceptable lines and thus achieve recovery. In 1847 Stabb visited the leading public asylums in France and England including the Salpêtrière and the Bicêtre in Paris, Bethlehem and Guy’s hospitals in London, the Devon County asylum, and the Middlesex County pauper lunatic asylum at Hanwell (London). He wrote an account of his visit, “Notes on the Parisian lunatic asylums,” which was published in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology (London) in January 1848. In this article he unfavourably contrasted the French use of mechanical restraint with the British method of non-restraint.

Stabb’s system and method of treatment was based on that of his friend Dr John Conolly, resident physician at the Hartwell asylum and the leading advocate of non-restraint. Stabb was also a personal friend of the pre-eminent American reformer in the care of the insane, Dorothea Lynde Dix, under whose auspices he toured public asylums in North America in 1853. With Dix he enjoyed an intense correspondence, lasting from at least 1853 to 1876, which proved an important source of influence and support. Dix was personally involved on three separate occasions in Stabb’s efforts to establish, enlarge, and run the St John’s asylum. Although a member of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, established in 1844, he was never authorized by the Newfoundland government to attend its annual meetings and as a result felt isolated both geographically and professionally. He did, however, maintain contact with some of its members, notably Dr Thomas Story Kirkbride, who was among the most influential of the association’s founders and the leading figure in 19th-century American asylum architecture.

Throughout his career Stabb suffered both personally and professionally at the hands of those in Newfoundland who doubted the benefits of expensive asylum treatment for the mentally ill (including the alcoholic, criminally insane, epileptic, and mentally retarded), but he never abandoned his faith in his mission and methods. This, moreover, was at a time when most social and medical services on the island lagged far behind those elsewhere in North America. During the 1860s and early 1870s Stabb was widely credited with sound management and skilful treatment under difficult conditions and received recognition and support from medical professionals outside the colony. However, his relations with successive governments were not always smooth, and he suffered a series of personal tragedies that included the uncertainty of his wife’s mental condition, the insanity of her sister, and the death of six of his children, four of whom died during an epidemic of scarlet fever in 1866. A gradual accumulation of chronic cases at the asylum over the years, an ever-increasing number of admissions, and a dwindling rate of discharge finally led to a reduction of financial and moral support from the government in the late 1870s and 1880s. These factors, combined with Stabb’s own failing mental faculties from 1885, resulted in a commission of inquiry into the asylum’s management in 1890 which discredited both Stabb and the asylum. He was finally retired as a result of the inquiry, and he and his wife went to live with their son Frederick A., a doctor, who had recently returned from abroad. Stabb’s physical health remained good for about a year until signs of cerebral affection began to manifest themselves in slight attacks of aphasia accompanied by paralysis on the right side. On 9 May 1892 he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and became comatose; he died eight days later.

At the beginning of his career Henry Hunt Stabb had been a controversial figure locally because of his insistence that the insane should be treated in a decent manner and could be treated with hope of success. He viewed the asylum’s primary object to be cure and its secondary purpose an enlightened public charity for long-term residents. Later he was perceived as performing a valuable social function by keeping mental patients out of the way. Though never an innovative medical or psychiatric theorist, at mid century he reflected the most humane and supposedly enlightened psychiatric standards of the day, and he advocated a level of care for insane, dependent persons unlikely to win favour in a society unaccustomed to large-scale public health and welfare expenditures. As there was no poor law in Newfoundland, the sick, aged, infirm, feeble-minded, orphaned, and unemployed were maintained by an indiscriminate system of poor relief, funds for which derived from general revenue on executive initiative. Neither had there been a poor-house or penitentiary at the time the asylum was founded. Medical care was often in the hands of unqualified persons, and the single general hospital served a population (in 1857) of more than 122,000 souls.

Stabb’s initial achievement of establishing an asylum is all the more significant when viewed against this background. His adherence to the British system of non-restraint, moreover, distinguished him from the majority of his North American counterparts, who continued to employ mechanical means throughout most of the century. His principal mistake, one shared by medical superintendents on both sides of the Atlantic, lay in insisting that chronic, incurable patients should remain in what was supposedly a curative (and therefore expensive) institution, and in underestimating the number of patients who for one reason or another did not respond to treatment and whose insanity could not be cured by “moral” methods alone. With little or no knowledge of such areas of medicine as immunology, endocrinology, pharmacology, laboratory diagnostics, and genetics, those working in the field of psychiatry were hardly in a strong medical or scientific position. Moreover, the profession’s insistence that insanity was a somatic disorder that could be treated by moral management placed it in an awkward, if not untenable, position, and its view of the asylum milieu as a crucial therapeutic tool was misguided by any standard. Nor did Stabb anticipate the ease with which government officials came to admit persons who did not belong in an asylum, finding it an increasingly convenient facility for inconvenient people.

The revisionist debate about the underlying purpose of asylums – whether they were truly the outgrowth of humanitarian sensibilities and scientific faith in the so-called age of enlightenment (the traditionalist’s view) or part of a wider movement to control and confine deviants in an age of increasing industrialization and urbanization (the social control theory) – has opened only recently. However, Stabb was not prescient and could not have anticipated the role that his creation would ultimately fulfil.

Patricia O’Brien

Harvard College Library, Houghton Library (Cambridge, Mass.), D. L. Dix papers, letters of H. H. Stabb to Dix, 1853–76 (photocopies in Waterford Hospital Library, St John’s). MHA, Stabb name file. PANL, GN 2/1/A, 1832–70; GN 2/2, 1825–59, 1863–64, 1866–68; GN 2/22/A, 1841–77; GN 2/23, 1849–50. PRO, CO 194/170–71 (mfm. at PANL). Nfld., Acts, 1833–90; General Assembly, Journal, 1845–46; House of Assembly, Journal, 1848–90. Courier (St John’s), 1845–67. Newfoundlander, 1838–45. Patriot and Terra-Nova Herald, 1855–57. Public Ledger, 1839–55. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 1855–94. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 1845–81. List of the graduates in medicine in the University of Edinburgh from MDCCV to MDCCCLXVI (Edinburgh, 1867). Albert Deutsch, The mentally ill in America: a history of their care and treatment from colonial times (2nd ed., New York, 1949). S. R. Godfrey, Human rights and social policy in Newfoundland, 1832–1982: search for a just society (St John’s, 1985). Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld. H. M. Hurd et al., The institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada, ed. H. M. Hurd (4v., Baltimore, Md., 1916–17; repr. New York, 1973). Patricia O’Brien, Out of mind, out of sight: a history of the Waterford Hospital (St John’s, 1989). D. W. Prowse, A history of Newfoundland from the English, colonial and foreign records (London and New York, 1895; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). A. T. Scull, Museums of madness: the social organization of insanity in nineteenth-century England (London, 1979). T. E. Brown, “Foucault plus twenty: on writing the history of Canadian psychiatry in the 1980s,” Canadian Bull. of Medical Hist. (St John’s), 2 (1985): 23–49.

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Cite This Article

Patricia O’Brien, “STABB, HENRY HUNT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stabb_henry_hunt_12E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stabb_henry_hunt_12E.html
Author of Article:   Patricia O’Brien
Title of Article:   STABB, HENRY HUNT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   June 4, 2023