[Skip to Content]
[Skip to Content Landing]
May 1987

Exploitation of the Insane in the New World: Benoni Buck, the First Reported Case of Mental Retardation in the American Colonies

Author Affiliations

From the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, Faculty of Medicine, Columbia University, and the Epidemiology of Brain Disorders Department, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1987;44(5):481-483. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1987.01800170105013

• Documenting the early history of mental illness in North America is complicated by the absence of colonial institutions specializing in the care or management of the insane. However, during the first half of the 17th century, a single authority existed in England, the Court of Wards and Liveries (1540-1660), with responsibility for appointing guardians for the mentally disabled. In 1637, Benoni Buck, a man with severe mental retardation, was referred to this court from Jamestown, Va. The ensuing conflict over Benoni's custody exposed a contradiction between the economic and political exigencies of a new order and the social obligation to protect the mentally ill. Benoni Buck is almost certainly the first case of mental disability reported from the English colonies. The case thereby represents a minor landmark in the history of mental illness in America; May 1987 marks the 350th anniversary of the first petition for guardianship.