Public Hospital, Williamsburg
The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds was the first building in North America devoted solely to the treatment of the mentally ill. The first patient was admitted October 12, 1773.
The structure was crowned with a cupola and resembled the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary. Thomas Jefferson, who had different tastes in architecture, said years later that both were "rude misshapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick-kilns." Inside the hospital looked much worse.
There were 24 cells, all designed for the security and isolation of their occupants. Each had a stout door with a barred window that looked on a dim central passage, a mattress, a chamber pot, and an iron ring in the wall to which the patient's wrist or leg fetters were attached. The cells were reserved for dangerous individuals or for patients who might be treated and discharged.
By the theories of the day, mental illnesses were diseases of the brain and nervous system, and the mentally ill chose to be irrational. Treatment consisted of restraint, strong drugs, plunge baths and other "shock" water treatment, bleeding, and blistering salves. An electro-static machine was installed. Between 1773 and 1790, about 20 percent of the inmates were discharged as cured.
The Public Hospital reopened on June 8, 1985, with six exhibition cells in the first floor of the east wing and staff offices on the second story. From the west wing an underground concourse leads to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
A ticket is required to enter the Public Hospital.
At the southwestern end of the town is the Public Hospital, which was once as asylum. Exhibits inside show the difference between conditions during the 1700?s and the 1800?s. In the 1700?s, hospital ?cells? were no better than jails; ?patients? were often abused. By the 1800?s, however, the hospital had adopted a different stance; instead of trying to beat evil spirits out of mentally ill people, doctors tried to cure them (with much more success). You can access the DeWitt Wallace Museum from the Hospital.
Opened in 1773, the "Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" was America's first asylum. From 1773 to about 1820, "treatment" involved solitary confinement and a grisly course of action designed to "encourage" patients to "choose" rational behavior (it was assumed that patients willfully chose a life of insanity). So-called therapeutic techniques included the use of drugs, submersion in cold water for extended periods, bleeding, blistering salves, and an array of restraining devices. On a self-guided tour you'll see a 1773 cell, with a straw-filled mattress on the floor, ragged blanket, and manacles.
During what is called the Moral Management Period (1820-65), patients were seen to have an emotional disorder and were treated with kindness. The high point of the period was the administration of John Minson Galt II, from mid-1841 to his death in 1862. Galt created a carpentry shop, a shoemaking shop, a games room, and sewing, spinning, and weaving rooms. He conducted reading and music classes and organized evening lectures, concerts, and social gatherings. For all his good intentions, however Galt admitted, "practice invariably falls short of theory." His rate of cure was not notable.
After Galt's death, nine different superintendents administered the hospital. Confidence in reform and government intervention on behalf of the unfortunate diminished in this age of Social Darwinism when the survival of the fittest was the new ethic. Though some of the improvements initiated during the Moral Management Period were extended, restraining devices once more came into vogue. This final period, when patients were essentially warehoused with little hope of cure, is known as the Custodial Care Period.
The self-guided tour sets one thinking about our often equally ineffective methods of treating the mentally ill today.