World War I -- Life Histories/Section 019/Ruth Shaw

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Ruth Shaw was most-known for her work in art therapy after the First World War.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Ruth Faison Shaw, an early advocate for art therapy, was born in Kenansville, North Carolina in 1887. She was known for using finger painting for treatment of the mentally ill in Kansas and in North Carolina after World War I. [1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life and Education[edit | edit source]

Shaw attended elementary school and the James Sprunt Institute. After, she attended the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, where she developed a love for art and education. Upon completion, Shaw returned to North Carolina where she became a teacher for young children near Southport and Wilmington. [2]

Ruth Shaw was one of the first women to serve with the YMCA in wartime France.

WWI YMCA Work[edit | edit source]

Towards the end of World War I, in October 1918, Shaw worked overseas as a canteen worker and secretary for the National War Work Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of the United States. Once overseas, she corresponded through letters with family back home in Southport, North Carolina. Just after beginning service, her brother grew ill and died during his service with the United States Navy. Her brother’s death brought Shaw home on leave, but she returned to Europe for work in early January 1919.

World War I lasted through November 1918, overlapping with Shaw’s service for just one month. At this time, soldiers were returning home, needing healthcare. In addition, reparations needed to occur in countries where the war was fought, such as France, where Shaw served after the war ended. By August 1919, she had returned home for a second time. [3]

Post-War Finger Painting[edit | edit source]

By 1922, she returned again to Europe, where she directed the Shaw School in Rome for English-speaking boys and girls. It was here that she discovered the art of finger painting, as well as a formula for making finger paint. In the early 1930’s, she went back to the United States, where she set up finger painting studios first in New York and then in Cape Cod. [4]

Art Therapy and Later Years[edit | edit source]

At the outbreak of World War II, Shaw continued her finger painting and would use finger painting as a means of entertainment for servicemen. She then moved to Topeka, Kansas, where she worked with the mentally ill at the Menninger Psychiatric Clinic. Here, she began using art therapy as treatment for patients. She was among the first to use art therapy in treating the mentally ill.

With experience in psychiatry, she returned for a final time to North Carolina, settling in Chapel Hill in 1959. She was employed by the University of North Carolina as a consultant with the Department of Psychiatry, and remained there until her death on December 3rd, 1969. [5]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Women in Wartime YMCA[edit | edit source]

During the World War I, women sought to be of service to their country. Because they were not allowed to fight, they found different ways to be of use. Mrs. Blatch, according to The New York Times, was a leader involved in motivating other women to do their part. At the Women’s City Club in the Vanderbilt Hotel, she spoke out on women’s behalf in 1917: “There are two classes of people, the combatants and the non-combatants. It is the non-combatant class that the women can be of service." [6]

Women began to provide service abroad with the YMCA. Most often, they would work in canteens to provide food for military men and other staff members. William Sloane, chairman of the YMCA War Work Council at the time, saw the efficiency of these women workers, and eventually had them move to lines of better work. Women then began to be hired as secretaries and were involved in office work. [7]

After World War I, many soldiers were suffering from "war neurosis," or what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Art Therapy in the Post-War Era[edit | edit source]

During World War I and the post-war era, mentally ill patients were often misdiagnosed and mistreated. According to the Ex-Services Welfare Society, an organization devoted to the treatment of the mentally ill after World War I, “Shell-shocked soldiers or those suffering from war neurosis were generally suffering from psychological collapse as a result of the stresses and strains of battle."[8]

After Shaw’s success with finger painting in treating the mentally ill, many medical doctors followed suit. In 1948, it was proven that an individual’s finger painting revealed characteristics of their personality, and led to more accurate diagnoses, and in turn, treatment. During this time, doctors sought to test the accuracy of art therapy by comparing its results to those from surgery and shock therapy.[9] While the findings of these comparisons were not found, art therapy continued to be used, suggesting its success.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 5, P-S Electronic Resource]." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Web.
  2. "Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 5, P-S Electronic Resource]." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Web.
  3. "Ruth Faison Shaw Papers, 1908-1968." Southern Historical Collection. The Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  4. "Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 5, P-S Electronic Resource]." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Web.
  5. "Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 5, P-S Electronic Resource]." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Web.
  6. Gavin, Lettie. "American Women In World War I : They Also Served." Niwot, Colo: University Press of Colorado, 1997. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
  7. "Women’s Work in War." New York Times (1857-1922): 8. Feb 18 1917. ProQuest. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  8. Whitmarsh, Andrew. "Distinguishing between Shell-Shocked Veterans and Pauper Lunatics: The Ex-Services' Welfare Society and Mentally Wounded Veterans After the Great War." War in History 14.3 (2007): 347-71. Web.
  9. "Self-Revelation through Finger-Painting Studied as New Aid in Mental Treatment." New York Times (1923-Current file): 23. Sep 07 1948. ProQuest. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.