A hand coloured image of Nellie Bly.

A hand coloured image of Nellie Bly.

Curiosity is a powerful feeling. It is why we know the Earth is round and weighs 5 974 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 kilograms. Or why a group of wizzkids invented a Google algorithm that gave that answer in less than a second. It is also what makes ADC go around, driving students and teacher from all over Europe to enroll with the Internship and Teacher Development Programmes. So let's celebrate curiosity in all its quizzical glory! Over the next few months we will introduce seven curious people who changed the world.   

The American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once wrote "well-behaved women seldom make history". That is certainly true for Nellie Bly, a courageous investigative journalist from Pennsylvania who feigned insanity in order to report on the treatment of patients inside a New York mental intuition in the late 19th century. Aged only 23 and a pioneer in her field, Bly unmasked the ongoing abuse within the health care system and thereby launched a new kind of investigative journalism. Her reportage became widely famous and caused the City of New York to invest in the care of the mentally afflicted.  

Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran adopted the pen name Nellie Bly when she became a journalist. The death of her father, a judge and landowner, had left her family without any claims to the estate and Bly later had to drop out of college due to a lack of funds. Her writing career instead began when she submitted an aggravated response to a sexist column, titled 'What Women Are Good For', in the newspaper The Pittsburg Dispatch. There, she became known for her undercover reporting, posing as a sweatshop worker to expose the poor conditions women faced. When her editor assigned her to the “women’s pages” to cover fashion and gardening, Bly took the initiative to travel to Mexico and become a foreign correspondent at 21 years-of-age. 

Seeking tougher challenges, Bly eventually traded Pittsburgh for New York and talked her way into an assignment at Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper The New York World

Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did. 
— From Ten Days In A Mad House by Nellie Bly

After rehearsing a series of jerky facial expressions and intense stares in front of the mirror, Bly checked into a boarding house, pretending to be a woman looking for work. Her strange behaviour soon drew the attention of the police. Four doctors examined her, all declaring her insane, and she was sent to an asylum at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt’s Island), where she was incarcerated for ten days, writing her observations down in a notebook. 

Bly’s report of the conditions within the institution came as a shock to the public. These vulnerable women were physically and psychologically abused by their supposed carers. The facilities were described as equally dismal, with Bly describing the poor food and lack of heating and proper clothes. Another disturbing fact was that many of the patients seemed no different from Bly herself. In one case, Bly witnessed a German-speaking woman being committed without the aid of an interpreter, to the spiteful glee of the medical personnel that examined her.  

My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head – ice-cold water, too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane. I caught a glance of the indescribable look on the faces of my companions, who had witnessed my fate and knew theirs was surely following.
— From Ten Days In A Mad House by Nellie Bly
The insane asylum on Blackwell's Island, which Bly reported on.

The insane asylum on Blackwell's Island, which Bly reported on.

And so Nellie Bly has gone down in history as a pioneering and fearlessly determined reporter who singlehandedly laid bare the institutional abuse of the mentally ill, inspiring improvements and investments in the health care system. A few years later, she also became the first person to circumnavigate the world in 72 days, emulating the trip undertaken by Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg.

ADC College organises Internship and Teacher Development Programmes in London and Dublin, eligible for funding from Erasmus+. Don't hesitate to contact us if you would like more information about what we do and how to get funding. Call a Country Manager today on +44 2084249424 or send a message to info@adccollege.eu. 

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