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Biography of SC's pioneering doctor

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Dr. James Woods Babcock (Source: Dr. Charles Bryan) Dr. James Woods Babcock (Source: Dr. Charles Bryan)
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

Every day, thousands of people see the landmark building named after Dr. James Woods Babcock sitting at the center of the former South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane at Bull and Elmwood Streets.

Dr. Babcock earned the honor for his work with the state's mentally ill as superintendent of the hospital between 1891 and 1914. He also contributed to the reduction of the disease pellagra in America.

"Babcock's lasting significance was for his role in the pellagra epidemic," Babcock biographer Dr. Chares Bryan said. "In 1909 he had a national conference which really became an international conference, perhaps the biggest thing that happened in Columbia since Sherman came through in 1865. It attracted international attention."

Bryan's study of Babcock has been published in the book Asylum Doctor: James Woods Babcock and the Red Plague of Pellagra.

Babcock was a South Carolina native who studied at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard School of Medicine. He eventually returned to his home state and was appointed Administrator of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane by Governor Ben Tillman in 1891.

"Babcock was a physician and was South Carolina's first fully-trained psychiatrist, or alienist. He was well-recognized and esteemed as one of the leading alienists, or psychiatrists in the Southeastern United States," Dr. Bryan said. "He was also one of the first to call attention to the growing problem of mental illness in African-Americans during the late 19th century."

His administration at the hospital occurred during difficult years for South Carolina.

"Because of poverty, racial discrimination, violence and other factors and were terrible years for the State Hospital for the Insane because of overcrowding and under funding," Bryan said.

Now that society enjoys a pellagra-free existence, Babcock's name lives on through the red-domed building on Bull Street. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is one of a few that will survive development at the former asylum that includes a minor-league baseball park.

"I think the preservation of the Babcock Building is important and I think the significance of the Babcock Building, particularly vis-a-vis pellagra, probably transcends what we've read about so far.

Bryan will be discussing his book, Asylum Doctor, Tuesday, July 29 at 5:30 p.m. at Historic Columbia Foundation's Robert Mills House Carriage House.

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