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The Bogotá mental asylum: from insanity to feminine mental disease

It was an institution of Province of Cundinamarca Welfare for women committed to the Asilo de Mendigas (Beggars Asylum) the San Juan de Dios Hospital, the Casa Refugio (Refuge home) and the Casa de Locos (Mental Asylum), and whose purpose was specialized care different from mental male patients and focused to the care of women who had seemed to lose touch with reality.

Listen: “There are many barriers to access mental healthcare in Colombia (in Spanish”).


In 1937, it was moved to Ningunaparte, an old manor that had been a fireworks factory during Colonial times, located downtown, until 1980, when the patients were relocated to a place known as José Joaquín Vargas Special Women’s Care Center, located in the town of Sibaté (Province of Cundinamarca).

This center was characterized by overcrowding and uncleanliness; there, women from all walks of life were committed and even in some cases women that had their babies and thrown them to the river were treated as criminals. Women with “postpartum depression” which was then linked to madness or women abandoned by their families for not complying with their social roles in marriage, maternity or the role of women were also committed.

According to reports from Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) physician and former director of the asylum, Julio Manrique, “During the day, women were distributed among 4  courtyards: the largest was for women in state of manic excitement, another was for more calm patients, a third for epileptic and idiots and the fourth for renown demented incurable patients.”

Other data reveal that approximately two or three slept in single beds. They were dressed in old, dirty and worn grey gowns and ran barefoot in courtyards and corridors insufficient for the 750 patients that lived there. In 1941, the number of women grew to 949 and 2,131 in 1946, which many times died in the arms of sisters of mercy due to the unsanitary conditions that prevailed.

Another aspect was the domestic character of the times, recalls UNal Luz Alexandra Garzón Ospina, Ph.D. in Human and Social Sciences.

“It was the era of the bipartisan violence (liberals against conservatives) which prevailed in extensive areas of the Provinces of Caldas, Tolima, Boyacá, Cundinamarca, or Valle del Cauca, and impacted families, producing mass migrations and possibly affected the mental status of those who lived it,” says the Garzón.

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In her opinion, “behind these metal patients were emotional women, who had feelings and suffered the consequences in their bodies and looked for refuge in madness, to embrace other patients and try to understand the reason for being committed to such a place.”

Therefore, due to their voices, physicians proposed to relive their daily lives and practices linked to medical treatment which later turned into the psychiatric genesis in the country.

From care to scientific procedures

The historical reconstruction of the mental asylum between 1930 and 1950 is possible thanks to medical reports and liquidator of the General Welfare Board, such as the Secretariat of Social Assistance; the minutes of the Bogotá Mental Asylum; the compilation of laws and ordinances of the Welfare Office and Social Assistance of the Province of Cundinamarca; the resolutions and letters from the liquidator of the Asylum and the clinical histories discovered in the Bogotá archives.

One of the elements discovered in the project was the diverse names throughout the years, such as Loony House, Looney Asylum, Women’s Mental Hospital, Women’s Phrenocomium and Neuropsychiatric Hospital that were due to a change in infrastructure, management, and internal services, but especially to the scientific progress they were achieving.

“It could be said that naming it the Neuropsychiatric Hospital was due to psychiatric practices and trends that consolidated psychiatric treatment between 1930 and 1950,” says Dr. Garzón.

For many years, the imaginary over the scientific progress was performed by applying psychiatric therapy from four perspectives:  The use of insulin and cardiazol stimulated convulsions so the patient would wake up calm; electroshocks which consisted of applying an electric current through the skull and with the same purpose; and lobotomies, which were a surgical treatment on the brain through the eyes which was performed on people that did not show any progress with other procedures.

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An example of a lobotomy carried out in 1942 to a woman from Zapatoca (Province of Santander) discovered in the medical archives of the asylum shows that curing mental diseases was related to what was considered to be the role of women. The report reads:

…for the third time reenters and is now a candidate for a pre-frontal lobotomy for the end of 1943, after electroshock therapy. After the operation she was taken home by her husband, where she showed a lack of interest for herself and her children; she has a puerile behavior with a certain degree of irresponsibility in regards to her duties as a wife and mother. She is sometimes euphoric and has easy access to psychomotor excitement which the husband found to be incompatible with his living conditions and decided to commit her to the asylum where she continues to be stationary.

From Bogotá to Sibaté

Looking back and trying to understand how mental illness has been managed in women–corresponding to what history has demanded from the role of women– opened the possibility of comprehending the genesis of psychiatry in Colombia and how medical practice was turned into making women the object of experimentation and accusations.

The women which were at Ningunaparte until 1980 were relocated to the town of Sibaté making the Women Colony with the diagnosis of “mental illness” which is treated with other logic, without shock therapy or lobotomies. According to data of the Cundinamarca Welfare, they now have 657 vulnerable patients, with cognitive and mental incapacities. Everyone now has Health Providing Entities (EPS, for its Spanish acronym) psychiatric treatment. Additionally, they have occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and respiratory therapy.

Since the sixties, mental illnesses began to be treated pharmaceutically, i.e. with a psychiatric diagnosis. Patients are treated with medication without surgical experimentation, leaving apart the concept that a “mad” person is not the owner of his/her own self, promoting care ethics which reflecting how our society conceives that people who endure a mental disease are more vulnerable.

Even though metal patients continue to be stigmatized, not all should be committed to psychiatric institutions and can, according to their disease, have a normal and calm life.



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