October 12: America’s First Asylum

2016/10/12 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1773 the first patient was admitted to The Asylum for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds in Williamsburg.

The General Assembly of the Colony of Virginia had approved funding in the previous year for care of the insane.  The governor, who proposed its construction, believed that people “separated from their reason” could be cured, and thus the construction of this hospital (vs. an asylum, which would be more of a place to hold the incurable safely out of public sight).  A two-story brick structure was designed by Philadelphian Robert Smith, one of the best-known architects of the period.  The Hospital bore striking similarities to several other institutions of his design, including the main hall at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and the Walnut Street Prison: each is a multi-story, symmetrical structure with central projecting bay and cupola, filled with small rooms and large pens for “persons of insane and disordered minds,” theology students, and/or prisoners.

The Hospital comprised two dozen cells built for safe confinement of its patients.  Each cell was provided with a mattress and chamber pot and fitted with iron shackles.  In the name of curing them, patients were subject to restraints, shock water therapy in plunge baths, and drugs.  Such was the state of enlightened treatment of the day; in the 1840s approaches to design for the insane began to change with the more therapeutic treatments and gentler architectural surroundings instigated primarily by Thomas Kirkbride.

Image: the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds; destroyed by fire in 1885, rebuilt 100 years later (from this source)


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