Fiah Fagan Cox: I Remember

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the Indiana Medical History Museum on Vermont Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. It was an amazing visit and what made it very interesting was the guided tour by a retired medical doctor.

One item that I found of interest (there were many, by the way) was a portrait and a brief biographical sketch of a woman named Fiah Fagan Cox (1892-1977).  She was a teacher of English as well as an author and, as I have stated before, English teachers are the top tier of the teaching profession for secondary students as they explore the world of literature and poetry as well as the basic mechanics of the writing process.

Unfortunately, Fiah experienced a mental breakdown as she was phoning a friend from a telephone booth.  This episode landed her in the Central State Hospital after a three month stay in a sanitarium.

When she awoke, she found herself strapped down in a very barren room unlike the sanitarium.  She had no idea where she was, and her many encounters with “Nurse Jones” are recorded in a brief essay called “I Remember Jones”.  The link is below.

It seems that the loving persona of a caring and compassionate nurse were not the noble traits of Nurse Jones.  As Fiah wrote of her first encounter:

“I wouldn’t give a nickel for your chances,” she commented casually as she placed the tray on my chest. Bewildered and wondering what had become of Brinson, my nurse in the pleasant former sanitarium where I thought I had gone to sleep, I asked for my orange juice.

Who and where do you think you are?” she replied, and left. Her utter lack of concern for my health and comfort aroused intense indignation, a state of mind, which saved me from the panic my strange surroundings would have otherwise induced. For I was strapped down, in a narrow, hard bed in an ugly room with barred windows. From the corridor came eerie sounds. Someone was imploring God to send a doctor quick or let her die. Another voice was crooning, Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.

Fiah made the determination to make herself well in order to escape this place of imprisonment where she was served —“bacon gravy, charred toast and oatmeal”.  Her family supplied her with fresh fruit and treats which she shared with the other inmates which caused Nurse Jones to cry out:

So you think you’re Lady Bountiful, giving away food to the patients,” she raged.  A period of solitary confinement followed.

Her tale of woe is fascinating reading in light of how it was to be confined to a mental hospital back in the 1940s.  Fortunately, when Nurse Jones was on vacation, she was granted her pardon and returned to her family.

Every contentment, comfort, and pleasure was intensified a hundredfold because the years spent in the hospital, though outwardly lost, had somehow increased my capacity for gratitude. I was more aware of the simple enjoyments of living—the quiet of home, the sound of friendly voices, the wonder of freedom of going about casually, unwatched; the adventure of being outdoors alone. The electric shock treatments had left me with huge blackouts of memory, but I could not mourn lost remembrance of the past when discovering anew that things held such enchantment. Even the minor blessings of having old clothes and favorite books seem new and unexplored were no small wonders.”

Her daughter Jane Marie Cox was the first wife of Kurt Vonnegut.  They were high school sweethearts who were married after he returned from World War II in 1945.  He was good friends with Fiah.

She was brutally honest with Kurt on his writing.  She expected him to maintain a high literary standard which he did not always do—to her displeasure.

As those of us who had excellent English teachers know, they expected more from us than we were inclined to give.  As time eclipses the past, new appreciation grows for those teachers.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Indiana Medical History Museum, please take the time.  It is worth the time down the path of what was and what resulted from the practices of the past.

G. D. Williams © 2017

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Fiah Fagan Cox


I Remember Jones

Click to access I%20Remember%20Jones.pdf


Indiana Medical History Museum

Central State Hospital, originally known as the “Indiana Hospital for the Insane,” opened in 1848. The hospital grounds covered 160 acres on the outskirts of Indianapolis’s west side.

Throughout its 150-year history Central State Hospital treated patients with a variety of diagnoses, including schizophrenia (or dementia praecox), depression (melancholia), general paresis, hysteria, alcoholism, senile dementia, and epilepsy. The hospital’s Pathological Department opened in 1896 in order to research causes and treatments of these diseases.

At its height around 1950, 2,500 patients were housed at Central State Hospital. With the invention of new medications and the shift toward care in the community, the patient population dwindled in the following decades. After several scandals regarding patient abuse, Central State Hospital closed in 1994.


Back in the days before the “Moral Treatment Method,” patients in mental asylums were manacled, chained to walls or furniture, and even kept in cages.

A card on an Indiana Medical History Museum exhibit notes:

“Most people, even doctors, blamed mental illness on moral failings, lack of faith or even demonic possession. … They were usually malnourished, beaten, denied clothing and blankets. In short, they were viewed and treated as less than human. Rather than treating patients, these asylums merely housed the undesirable.”


Robert Burns: Afton Water, Flow Gently, Sweet Afton

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,

Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;

My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,

Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.