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Timeline of Early Psychiatric Hospitals & Asylums

The mentally ill in early American communities were generally cared for by family members, however, in severe cases they sometimes ended up in almshouses or jails. Because mental illness was generally thought to be caused by a moral or spiritual failing, punishment and shame were often handed down to the mentally ill and sometimes their families as well. As the population grew and certain areas became more densely settled, mental illness became one of a number of social issues for which community institutions were created in order to handle the needs of such individuals collectively.

1752: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Quakers in Philadelphia were the first in America to make an organized effort to care for the mentally ill. The newly-opened Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia provided rooms in the basement complete with shackles attached to the walls to house a small number of mentally ill patients. Within a year or two, the press for admissions required additional space, and a ward was opened beside the hospital. Eventually, a new Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane was opened in a suburb in 1856 and remained open under different names until 1998.

1773: Williamsburg, Virginia

To deal with mentally disturbed people who were causing problems in the community, the Virginia legislature provided funds to build a small hospital in Williamsburg. Over the years, the hospital grew in size as needs arose but remained within the historic area of the city until the mid-20th century, when a new hospital was built in a suburb. Today it is the Eastern State Hospital.

1792: New York, New York

The New York Hospital opened a ward for "curable" insane patients. In 1808, a free-standing medical facility was built nearby for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, and in 1821 a larger facility called the Bloomingdale Asylum was built in what is now the Upper West Side. In 1894, it was moved further away, to the suburb of White Plains and is currently under operation as the Payne-Whitney Westchester Hospital, a Division of the New York Hospital-Cornell Weill Medical Center.

1817: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In Philadelphia, The Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of their Reason was opened under Quaker auspices as a private mental hospital. It continues to serve this function to this day as the Friends Hospital.

1824: Lexington, Kentucky

The Eastern Lunatic Asylum was opened in Lexington, Kentucky, as the first mental institution west of the Appalachian Mountains. It still operates today under the name, Eastern State Hospital.

1890: All Across America

By 1890, every state had built one or more publicly supported mental hospitals, which all expanded in size as the country’s population increased. By mid-20th century, the hospitals housed over 500,000 patients but began to diminish in size as new methods of treatment became available.