The First Private Asylum

asylumSnippets 117. Exactly two hundred years ago today, the first ever private mental health hospital in the USA was opened, in Philadelphia, The Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason. According to Robert Waln, writing in An Account of the Asylum for the Insane (1825), the organisation was forward-thinking from its inception concerning the treatment of patients, with great attention paid to “the personal comfort of the patients”. Here, for example, is his account of how well the patients were being fed:

The diet of the patients is of course regulated by their peculiar symptoms. Those who can be entrusted with the management of their own appetite, being about two-thirds of the whole number, assemble at meal-time in the refectory, and eat together. It is then only that the male and female patients meet, and are seated on different sides of the tables. Their food is of the most wholesome and substantial kind, and such as may be found on the tables of the middle class of society, and of respectable boarding houses. The board of the farmer, though wealthy, does not equal it. There are no meagre-days, — no days set apart for meat; nor is there fixed food on fixed days of the week. Breakfast is served in summer about six, in winter between seven and eight o’clock; it consists of coffee, superfine wheat bread and butter, fish or meat, and potatoes; or, for those who prefer them, boiled milk and bread. The dinner bell sounds throughout the year at meridian. Fresh beef, veal, mutton, or pork, with a great variety of vegetables, according to the season, and occasionally salt meat, followed daily by pies or puddings, constitute this repast. It is seldom, as it is the case in the Friends’ Asylum, that we see on the tables of similar institutions, the most choice pieces of meat, and such vegetables as asparagus, cauliflowers, green-peas, tomatoes, egg-plants, &c.: yet even these are as common here as on the tables of the rich. Supper takes place in summer at seven, in winter at five o’clock; and consists of tea, bread and milk, sometimes chocolate, wheat bread, and pickles, varied occasionally with mush, and cakes of different kinds. No spirituous, or fermented liquors are allowed. Soon after dark all the patients are secured in their respective chambers excepting those convalescents who enjoy the liberty of the grounds, and who remain with the family until their usual hour of retiring to rest, which is nine o’clock. The superintendent and his family, and during a part of the year, the managers who weekly inspect the institution, eat at the same table. There is no distinct table for any part of the family whatever. This course is highly gratifying to the feelings of the patients: they find themselves, in a degree, placed upon an equality, with those who are labouring for their restoration, and who, if rarely seen, and then only in the character of superiors, they would fear, but not love. Their almost uniform exemplary and quiet conduct during meals, is the best pledge of the respect and affection which violent means can never impress on the maniac, and which kindness, sympathy, and benevolence, only can excite.


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