In 1891 Babcock became superintendent of the South Carolina State Lunatic Asylum in Columbia, its first to have been trained in psychiatry. Babcock arrived eager to modernize and improve the institution.

Psychiatrist, mental hospital superintendent. Babcock was born on August 12, 1856, in Chester, the son of the physician Sidney E. Babcock and Margaret Woods. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College, he received an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1886. He interned at the Insane Department of the Massachusetts State Almshouse at Tewkesbury and studied mental diseases in Europe. From 1887 to 1891 he was assistant physician at McLean Hospital for the Insane in Somerville, Massachusetts.

In 1891 Babcock became superintendent of the South Carolina State Lunatic Asylum in Columbia, its first to have been trained in psychiatry. Babcock arrived eager to modernize and improve the institution. The physical plant had deteriorated since the 1860s, and the asylum had become largely custodial in function. With the help of Katherine Guion, a nurse he met at McLean, he established the Training School for Nurses in 1892. He married Guion in 1892; the couple had three children. In 1895 Babcock convinced the General Assembly to change the asylum’s name to South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane. But Babcock faced severe obstacles. The General Assembly, perennially hostile to debt and taxes, failed to increase appropriations. The hospital spent less per patient than most other state hospitals did, and its mortality rates were among the highest in the nation. Part of the problem was Babcock’s retiring personality, which led him to shun confrontations with legislators over appropriations. He also failed to gain effective control over his own staff, but this was partly because they were appointed by and accountable to the hospital’s regents rather than to Babcock.

Babcock’s most significant contribution to medicine was his work on pellagra, a deadly niacin-deficiency disease that afflicted many southerners in the early twentieth century. Pellagra, which often produced depression and mania, sent thousands of people to the state hospital, where many of them died. In 1907 Babcock diagnosed several cases of pellagra at the hospital, becoming one of the first American physicians to report its presence in the United States. Between 1910 and 1912 he published several articles on the subject and helped to found the National Association for the Study of Pellagra, serving as its first president from 1910 to 1912.

In 1909 the General Assembly ordered an investigation of conditions at the state hospital. The investigating committee uncovered many examples of overcrowding and substandard facilities, staffing, and care but disagreed as to the extent of Babcock’s responsibility and on a solution. In 1913 and 1914 he clashed with Governor Cole Blease over Blease’s demand that he fire assistant physician Eleanora B. Saunders. Blease tried to force both of them out, but another legislative investigation in 1914 exonerated them. Nevertheless, Babcock resigned soon after and opened the state’s first private mental hospital, Columbia’s Waverley Sanitarium, in 1915. He also lectured on psychiatry at the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston. He died in Columbia on March 3, 1922.

Etheridge, Elizabeth. The Butterfly Caste: A Social History of Pellagra in the South. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1972.

McCandless, Peter. Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Babcock, James Woods
  • Author Peter McCandless
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/babcock-james-woods/
  • Access Date December 17, 2018
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date May 17, 2016
  • Date of Last Update July 6, 2016