"Van Deusen v. Newcomer (1879): The Doctress and the Asylum"

Document Type


Presentation Date

Spring 4-30-2011

Conference Name

American Association for the History of Medicine annual conference

Conference Location



In October 1874 Nancy Newcomer, a doctor from Toledo, Ohio was taken to the Kalamazoo Asylum for the Insane by her son-in-law and committed as an “insane pauper.” There she stayed for nearly a year until August 1875, when her friends convinced the asylum superintendent, E. H. Van Deusen, that Newcomer was not insane and needed to be discharged. Once out, Newcomer struggled to rebuild her medical career and in 1878 filed a lawsuit against the Kalamazoo Asylum for false imprisonment and sued for $50,000 in personal and professional damages. The case, Van Deusen v. Newcomer (40 Mich. 90) went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which heard 77 witnesses and reversed lower court decisions by ruling in favor of Van Deusen. In his opinion, Chief Justice Thomas Cooley established an important precedence: so long as a superintendent acts in good faith, he cannot be held liable for mistakenly committing a sane person to an asylum.

For a case that cuts across so many important historical lines—the legal rights of women; the challenges of being a nineteenth-century doctress; public suspicion of insane asylums; definitions of insanity; the development of medical liability law—there has been little written about Newcomer other than what was originally published in the legal record. Newcomer supposedly had a family history of insanity and tried suicide on at least one occasion. She was twice divorced. While visiting her daughter in Michigan she became emotional and irrational, which led to her son-in-law placing her in an asylum. Once in the asylum, her own medical opinion as a doctor was disregarded and she was kept against her will. The son-in-law’s motives were also questioned, as he used Newcomer’s commitment as a pretense to claim her property. The paper Newcomer’s story and use it to highlight cultural, social, economic, and political tensions of the time.


asylum, Kalamazoo, trial, history, Newcomer, Van Deusen, insanity


History | History of Gender | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Mental and Social Health

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