History Reflects Ongoing Societal Inequities

November 17, 2020

Dr. Anna Ott was one of Madison’s first female physicians and benefitted from the privileges of wealth and whiteness. Yet she was involuntarily committed to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane and spent the last twenty years of her life there, dying in confinement in 1893. She is a lesson in privilege and prejudice, strength and vulnerability, prominence and obscurity. “I think she’s a really great historical figure because she’s so ordinary and she’s so extraordinary,” explains Professor Kim Nielsen, who recently published a book about her titled The Life of Anna Ott – Money, Marriage, and Madness (UIP2020). Intrigued, the Friends invited her to discuss what she found via a livestream conversation with UW-Madison’s McBurney Disability Resource Center Director, Mari Magler.

While making use of a Friends of UW-Madison Libraries research grant in 2013, Nielsen discovered Dr. Ott’s story, which had largely been lost to history. “I found one small reference to her as one of the adults in Dane County placed under legal guardianship. She was unique in that she was wealthy and because she’d been a physician, and at that point that was all I knew about her. I first intended to write a paragraph about her, and now here I am with a book.”

“I really want to emphasize that I was able to quite literally find her, and then do research on her, because of the support provided by the Friends of the Libraries and that’s so important for scholars,” Nielsen states. Uncovering Dr. Ott’s colorful history was a surprise. “I had plans to write a completely different book, but I was so fascinated by her story. I don’t want to give away the plot, but it involves a bank robbery, domestic violence, a suspected murder and all kinds of things that I never anticipated.”

Author Kim Nielsen
Author Kim Nielsen

Other unexpected revelations appeared as well. Anna Ott’s life reflected our country’s current struggles with class, gender, and race. Nielsen could clearly see today’s skirmishes between privilege, money, and whiteness intersecting with ableism, institutionalism, patriarchy, and domestic violence in Ott’s life experiences.

“We can see in her life the legal vulnerabilities of women, of the lack of safety options for women, the lack of legal rights for people determined with psych diagnoses, and for anyone with a stigmatized diagnosis,” Nielsen observes. And perhaps, most disturbing of all, Nielsen recognized the marginalization of human beings. “The biggest thing is that institutionalization often erases people. They lose family contact. They don’t enter the legal records much anymore. They are rarely in family letters. They’re not present at organizational events. These kinds of documents that historians use to gather information simply don’t exist. It erases people from the public sphere and from human significance.”

Screen shot of Nielsen, Magler, and the interpreter

Mari Magler, Director of the McBurney Disability Resource Center summed up a powerful 30-minute conversation. “Anna Ott demonstrates that throughout our history, if you hold privilege in one area, you may still experience oppression and prejudice in another area, and we must all work to value our common humanity.” These topics, highly relevant in the 1800s, are also a vital part of contemporary conversations. The Friends thank Nielsen and Magler for bringing this discussion out of the archives and into the light. 

You can watch the 30-minute interview here.