Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds
On 12 February 1772 the General Assembly passed an act authorizing
more funding for the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, the first public institution in
America to care exclusively for the mentally ill.
Governor Francis Fauquier first proposed building such a facility in a speech to the House of Burgesses
in 1766. The legislature eventually passed a bill to establish such a hospital, and in 1773 Williamsburg's
Public Hospital began admitting patients. During this early period, the institution was part prison and
part infirmary, but it did represent a new and more humane attitude toward mental illness. Doctors
thought that insanity was a brain disease, and inmates were treated with drugs, water therapy, and
restraining devices. Only those patients who were considered curable or a danger to the community
were admitted, and the hospital was not intended for long-term care.
In 1841, the name of the hospital changed to the Eastern Lunatic Asylum, and under the management
of Dr. John Minson Galt II, it grew to include seven buildings that housed over 300 patients. Galt
encouraged residents to participate in crafts, gardening, and other social functions. Despite these
therapeutic activities and careful medical supervision, the number of patients who actually improved
declined. The hospital then became a long-term care facility for the mentally disturbed and was
later renamed Eastern State Hospital.
In 1885 a fire destroyed the original hospital building, and one hundred years later the Colonial
Williamsburg Foundation reconstructed the building as a museum. Eastern State Hospital
relocated to a new site in Williamsburg, and it is now part of the Virginia Department of
Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services.
Virginia Historical Society | Online exhibitions | Search