The Development of Harvey Black

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Dr. Harvey Black

James Shockley

People change, sometimes drastically, over their lives. Harvey Black, the grandson of one of Blacksburg’s founders, illustrates this better than most of us.


Before the Civil War, most medical doctors learned their trade as apprentices to established doctors. This meant that most did not get any real medical training. In particular, they had no knowledge of germs, the basis of disease. Most of them had little knowledge of the detailed internal workings of the body and could not be trusted for surgery.

The situation was not much better for many college-educated doctors. Any college could give an M.D. degree, sometimes with no more training that a single course in anatomy and a single course in chemistry.

Harvey Black, born in 1827, knew he wanted to be a medical doctor and, as a teenager, started an apprenticeship to two other doctors. One year later he enlisted in the United States Army to fight in the Mexican War. He was 19 years old.

Because of his brief medical background, he was assigned as a hospital steward. The stewards were responsible for everything that went on in the hospital area, except for medical treatment. This meant he was expected to be an orderly, to be certain that proper meals were served, to keep the area clean.

After the Mexican War he earned his M.D. degree at the University of Virginia and went into private practice. He originally thought about practicing in Wisconsin but changed his mind after visiting the area for several months. He came back to Blacksburg, married a local woman and started a family.

When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a surgeon and was assigned to Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s army. At that time, the army was a better training ground for surgeons than any hospital. Musket balls shattered limbs that had to be amputated, causing more amputations than any other war in history.

Before the war, there were almost no trained surgeons outside of big cities. After the war, there were more than were needed in the general population. Black distinguished himself in the army, and was one of the attending surgeons when Stonewall Jackson was accidentally wounded by his own men in the battle of Chancellorsville.

After the war, Harvey Black came home to Blacksburg, resumed his medical practice, and became active in the Virginia Medical Society and in community work in Montgomery County.

He always had a strong interest in education and was named to the board of the Olin and Preston Institute, a small Methodist college in Blacksburg. About this time, Virginia became eligible for a land-grant college.

Black and Peter Whisner, the pastor of the Methodist Church, pushed to get the land-grant college in Blacksburg at the Preston and Olin building. When the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College was established, he was named the first Rector of the Board of Visitors.

About this time, he was elected president of the Virginia Medical Society. Suddenly, without any real training in mental illness, he was asked by the governor to become Superintendent of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg (later renamed the Eastern State Hospital).

He served six years before returning to his practice in Blacksburg. While superintendent, he did his best to establish humane procedures for the inmates. For example, he was one of the first to give furloughs to recovering patients to help them fit back into society.

Later, he ran for the Virginia House of Delegates and was reelected several times. While there, he did serious lobbying for the mentally ill. It appears that he had come to the realization that insanity is a mental illness, not a curse from God, as many people believed at that time.

In other words, mentally ill people should be treated in a humane manner and, if possible, cured. They should not just be locked away out of sight and forgotten.

While serving in the legislature, he fought for a mental hospital in western Virginia. When the legislature voted to establish one in Marion, Harvey Black was named its first Superintendent. He moved to Marion and began to work on establishing the institution.

This meant that he had to work with the architects and the builders, as well as hire a staff and develop hospital procedures. Unfortunately, his health was not good, requiring two prostate operations, and he died in 1888, about a year after assuming his duties in Marion. He is buried in the lower part of Westview Cemetery.

We can never be sure what motivated Harvey Black to change from a teenager interested in medicine into a doctor, a legislator and Superintendent of two mental hospitals. It is clear that he had a strong sense of duty, probably instilled by his family, and reinforced by his service in the Civil War.

The Civil War was one of the most brutal wars ever fought by the United States — we had more deaths in that war than in all of the other wars from the Revolutionary through World War II.

Although unrecognized as a disability, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was common in its aftermath. Civil War soldiers had the same trouble adjusting to ordinary life as modern combat soldiers. They had feelings of guilt, haunting dreams and isolation from society.

Dr. Black must have dealt with at least a few of these ex-soldiers, and we assume that this helped him develop his outlook on mental illness.

Harvey Black’s home was on the site of the Mellow Mushroom building in Blacksburg, which contains a plaque honoring him.

I am indebted to Craig Little and Rick Ellison for information in this article.

James Shockley writes a monthly history column. He lives in Blacksburg.