Eastern State Hospital is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the United States. It was established on 12 Oct. 1773, when Virginia was still a British colony, with the mission of treating and discharging the curable mentally ill. In 1841, under the leadership of John Minson Galt, the hospital initiated new reforms characterized as “moral management,” a self-directed form of rehabilitation that changed the social perception and treatment of mental illness in America. Beginning in 1935 and ending on 28 Jan. 1970, the entire institution gradually moved to Dunbar Farm.
The eighteenth century in Europe brought upon great cultural change through the Enlightenment movement. Also known as the age of reason, people began to reject popular negative connotations regarding the mentally ill. Instead of deeming them fools, the mentally ill were seen as people with a disease of the mind. Royal Governor of Virginia, Francis Fauquier acknowledged these newfound sympathies while addressing the House of Burgesses of Williamsburg on November 6th of 1766; “a legal Confinement, and proper Provision, ought to be appointed for these miserable Objects, who cannot help themselves.” Fauquier’s idea directly led to the foundation of the Eastern State Hospital in 1773, but the Royal Governor did not live to see the patients institutionalized, as he died in 1768.
James Galt, the previous keeper of the Williamsburg Public Gaol, was the first administrator of the hospital and his wife was the hospital’s matron. During this time period conditions in the hospital were horrendous as the patients were only provided a straw mattress and chamber pot, in their small cells. It wasn’t until 1841 when Dr. John Minson Galt II became the superintendent, which conditions improved. In 1845, patient’s rooms resembled small apartments as opposed to the previous small cells. Dr. Galt also provided social activities for his patients in the form of lectures, concerts, visits into town, and carriage rides. In addition to these, Dr. Galt also created a patient library, shoemaking shop, game room, sewing room, and carpentry shop.
During the Civil War, Union General George McClellan’s massive Peninsular Campaign overwhelmed the Williamsburg area, and the Eastern Lunatic Asylum was captured by Union troops on May 6th of 1862. This marked a period of transition for the hospital, as Dr. Galt’s improvisations were largely forgotten. On June 7th of 1885, a fire destroyed the original 1773 hospital building.
In 1894 the Eastern Lunatic Asylum’s name changed to Eastern State Hospital. Due to the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg around 1937, the hospital moved to the Dunbar Farm where it remains functioning today.
Jones, Granville Lillard. The History of the Founding of the Eastern State Hospital of Virginia. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1954.
Drewry, William Francis, Richard Dewey, Charles Winfield Pilgrim, George Adler Blumer, American Medico-Psychological Association. Committee on a History of the Institutional Care of the Insane, and Thomas Joseph Workmann Burgess. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1916.
Historical Marker “Eastern State Hopsital W-40b,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.
“Eastern State Hospital,” Eastern State Hospital, www.ancestry.com (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Eastern State Hospital,” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, www.history.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Eastern State Asylum,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, www.research.history.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
Department of Historic Resources link not available