Public Hospital Museum
Opened in 1773 as the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, this mental illness asylum was the first of its kind in North America. “Part jail, part infirmary,” the Public Hospital was created specifically with the intention of healing the mentally ill through medicine.
At the time, families were charged with taking care of ill family members even if they didn’t have the proper training, equipment, or medicine. This hospital was founded at the insistence of Governor Fauquier who saw the need for such a hospital. The hospital, admitting only curable and dangerous individuals, had cells designed with security in mind rather than comfort or rehabilitation. Thick doors, barred windows, and restraints to hold the patient’s wrists and legs come standard in every cell. Medicine of the time dictated that mentally ill patients chose to be irrational rather than a chemical imbalance or disease and therefore the treatments reflected that supposition. Restraint, drugs, electric-shock treatments, “shock” water treatments, bleeding, and blistering salves were used to bring the patients out of their illness through, from 1773-1790, only 20 percent of those released were deemed cured.
Fortunately, science evolved and by 1836, what was known as “moral management” began to replace restraint as a mode of treatment using compassion, work therapy, and leisure activity in their plans of rehabilitation. After several expansions, growth, and an unfortunate electrical fire in 1885, the hospital was rebuilt and later moved to its current location in 1960. The hospital was reopened in 1985 as an exhibition with museum galleries and artifacts illustrating the history of the site and the practices of 18th-century medicine.
Today, you can tour the Public Hospital museum daily from 10-7 pm at the Colonial Williamsburg living history area.