Unethical Psychology in Early America: Elizabeth Packard

Unethical and Early Psychology

Early psychology and unethical psychology have a lot in common, especially in that the earlier the psychology had been the more unethical it seems to have been as well. Granted, some of the reasons early psychology was so unethical was because the medical understanding of psychology had been so poor. Obviously, early psychology will reflect the time's limitations of knowledge. However, another component to the unethical quality of early psychology is that the practice not only reflected intellectual boundaries, but it also mirrored what we now consider to be unethical societal standards.

Today it is incredibly difficult for someone to be involuntarily committed to an insane asylum. Even in the 1860's, a time in which unethical psychology practices and experiments had barely reared it's ugly head, without compelling data it was still considered unethical for patients to be committed without their consent. This law, of course, did not apply to married women.

The Unethical Law Surrounding Packard v Packard

For one reason or another, early psychology found that husbands were allowed to involuntarily commit their wives to an insane asylum. Sound fairly unethical? Of course, were other relations to report the same indicators of insanity of the same women, they would theoretically be ignored, because otherwise that would be unethical.

In the famous case of Packard v Packard, a case which is both infamous for it's importance in the development in early psychology, the attention paid to unethical psychology, and the advancement of woman's rights, Elizabeth Packard was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum by her husband. The indicators of her insanity? Elizabeth Packard most notable disagreed with her husband on issues of religion, slavery, and wished he would assist her in weeding the garden. Her husband reported her as being slightly insane. The seriousness in which this oxymoron was investigated should in itself highlight the unethical and poor quality of early psychology in.

Elizabeth Packard was committed to an insane asylum for three years. Upon her release, she was shut up in a nursery in her husband's house and was only rescued by what was finally and obviously unethical bondage by slipping a note through a crack in the window her husband nailed shut. Maybe this is an apt time to mention Elizabeth Packard's husband was a reverend and they had six children.

What sort of evidence did Elizabeth Packard's husband produce to indicate that the former bondage had not been unethical and that she was truly insane? Packard called upon witnesses of his side of the family who agreed that Elizabeth Packard had disagreed with her husband on issues of religion. Elizabeth Packard's response instead called upon unbiased witnesses which whom she had interacted in her community, all of whom said she had never seemed insane. Where early psychology had defined her as incurable, the resolution of Packard v Packard was such that Elizabeth Packard was declared sane and locking her away unethical.

Elizabeth Packard's Efforts

After Elizabeth Packard was finally declared sane at the close of Packard v Packard, she acknowledged that her story was not unique and set out to minimize, in whatever way she could, the unethical treatment of women in matters related to psychology. Though perhaps it was too early to radically change things, Elizabeth Packard did publish Marital Power Exemplified in 1864, Great Disclosure of Spiritual Wickedness in High Places in 1865, The Mystic Key in 1866, and The Prisoners' Hidden Life in 1868. Because of her stand on unethical psychology, the course of early psychology was changed, as laws mandating public hearings for all candidates for commitment to mental institutions, and Packard v Packard became an important standard for legal decisions to come.

Carlisle, Linda V. Elizabeth Packard: a Noble Fight. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2010. Print.

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