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Public Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia Case


The history of the 18-th century America is full of grand events, people, and masterpieces. This time is known for the proclamation of Independence from Great Britain and adoption of The Constitution. The time of Enlightenment and progress in scientific achievements; it was full of inventions, such as, for example, the steam engine of James Watt. This epoch was full of wars in the world and even forecast the beginning of the Civil War in the United States. There is also a place, not an event, which deserves a man’s attention. It is Colonial Williamsburg, a historic place in Virginia, which was the independent city. Its marvelous baroque-patterned buildings garnished the picture of the city, so that it was known to be Virginia’s capital. Here a lot of the most outstanding people of America helped providing democracy in the union of Virginia and the United States. Among them are Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Madison and others. The citizens of Williamsburg were proud of the city and even had their own slogan: “the future may learn from the past.” (Thomas J. Wertenbaker 113)

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The shapes and presence of the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg remind about the times of cultural and architectural rise, where buildings seems to be like marvelous “cakes full of sweets”. Here people thought over their good and appropriate conditions. They wanted to satisfy almost all social needs by means of innovative techniques and methods. At that time, with philosophical and medicine works of B. Pascal and other scientists mankind continued rationalizing the ways of definite researches. With reference to medicine in particular people began developing the experience of different illnesses cure. Colonial Williamsburg is not exclusion in this aspect. Here were many of famous social figures as well as scientists who tried to make up their minds about the problem of mental disorder.

The Public Hospital in focus

Among buildings of Colonial Williamsburg one cannot but notice the first public place in North America designed to cure mentally ill people. As Shomer S. Zwelling notes in the book “Quest for a Cure: The Public Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1773-1885” that “on October 12, 1773, the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds admitted its first patient.” (Zwelling 1) One of the most popular men of Williamsburg was Francis Fauquier, the Governor of the city. The hospital was built with his assistance. He promoted the significance of such establishment in preventing people from unconscious and insane people. Fauquier was a follower of the statements of the Enlightenment Era and believed that science could cure even mental discord.

The reason is that during previous times people wanted to treat their insane relatives or loved ones but it was beyond their means. The issue of material support was of great importance for the Williamsburg population as well as for the rest of Americans. The Governor appealed to the House of Burgesses saying about “a poor unhappy set of People who are deprived of their senses and wander about the Country, terrifying the Rest of their Fellow Creatures.” (Zwelling 5) Debate about the question of the maintenance and support of the Hospital went through many stages of discussion, but Francis Fauquier succeeded in this matter and proclaimed an act to “Make Provision for the Support and Maintenance of Idiots, Lunatics, and other Persons of unsound Minds.” (Virginia 204) It was approved by his death, still “Fauquier proposal and perspective had finally triumphed. In the preamble to the law the Burgesses declared, “Several persons of insane and disordered minds have been frequently found wandering in different parts of the colony.” (Zwelling 9) Since that time society of the United States of America was aware of first steps towards the cure of insanity within masses.

The hospital building was planned by the architect from Philadelphia Robert Smith. It had 24 cells to secure and isolate its dwellers. Each cell had a door with grid-like window, through which one could see a simple mattress, chambers of commerce and iron rings to which leg or armlet bonds were connected. Near the building of the hospital there was a yard where patients could walk. The patients probably were supposed to think over the martyrs in their rooms while walking, but, as it is believed, things which seem painful for sound-minded people appear to be ordinary for unsound ones. It is hard to describe the building in detail for it was like a prison, but at that time there were not present day’s conveniences to keep people of unsound mind in safety from themselves, when there are overstuffed walls in modern hospitals. There are several reports about physical injuries of such people and constant wish to make some more wounds on their bodies.

It is clear that for such layer of people home treatment was senseless and ineffective. It is like to play with fire: one never knows when the flame will reach his body. Moreover, people tried to indemnify themselves meaning the asocial character of such human beings:

“Family care of insanity was much less effective than institutional because “in family homes there are no baths, douches, open spaces and other adjuvants of therapy of which the physician disposes in public asylums.” (Shorter 14)

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If the issue about psychiatric help touched upon private clinics only and required great amounts of money, middle-class people would do everything to get rid of idiots and lunatics trying to commit mad deeds without any idea of their bad side. It is said in general, without any hint towards uselessness of such people. The human motives and desire to help people struggle against the uptake of people’s souls and minds with insanity were processed. Mankind always tries to build the ideal conditions for living. In Virginia the society turned to the needs of these helpless people. The only answer remained to be answered: quest for cure – is it possible? On the other hand, it is clear that in terms of humanism people should present insane ones with the destination to live.

One of the reformists in sphere of mental diseases of that time was George Man Burrows, who worked in Chelsea and was known for his proclamations in favour of the insane. In one of his speeches he said: “If the moderns have any claims to preeminence in the cure of insanity, it is certainly from studying those means which have been denominated moral.” (Shorter 42) He not only said so, but also provided some guidelines for better effect in treatment of the unsound patients. Among them are: the technique of “not trying to argue acutely ill patients out of their symptoms” and “therapeutic use of “the soothing voice of friendship to calm the agony which reminiscence often generates.” (Shorter 42) Carefulness is the standpoint to provide such procedures. In this case people should not confuse insanity with immorality as it was received in the Victorian time.

The fact that in terms of some quarrels people call each other more or less insane is not agreeable within mental illnesses. The drama of getting into an argument between people and their sometimes mad but conscious deeds can characterize them insane only from the emotional side. It is obvious because people are not unfeeling by their nature and try in various cases to describe their intentions to other human beings by means of language and corporal arguments.

Methods of treatment

The methods of treating in the 18-th century were not effective. The only thing which invoked interest within society about the question is the scientific progress and statements that physical treatments are correct for mentally ill people. Treatments presupposed the use of taboos, heavy medicaments and shock treatment. It was mentioned that the hospital with such ways of treatment let twenty per cent out as treated, but the number of ill people only increased. The doctors did not attend the hospital on a full-time base; they went by to check patients. On the other hand, the slaves were assigned to the building in terms of its cleaning keeping and duties in the kitchens. This segregation of labor was seen during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slaves represented mainly by Afro-American people could hardly endure this burden under the pressing of white people. In accordance with the treatments used at the time of the hospital foundation Zwelling writes the following words:

By the eighteenth century treatment was increasingly placed in the hands of secular administrators and formally trained doctors. Although these men of science and rationality sometimes exhibited magical thinking and occasionally dipped into the realms of popular science, literature, and religion, they believed science would provide a breakthrough in the quest for a cure to mental illness. (Zwelling 2)

One would rather say of the ordinary desire to cure mental illnesses at that time which was strong within scientists and researchers of the “recovery formula”. There was nothing to do with methods which were attached in the process of therapy. The perspectives of such challenges showed only the start of researches in this sphere. The outcome of such cure seemed to be zero. The number of patients increased dramatically. This resulted in the size of the building, where additional rooms and lodgments appeared. Of course, the tremendous flow of insane people was caused by lack of experience of medical care in this sphere, a constantly growing number of patients only singled out the need of the society to isolate such individuals. The only mistake was in the defects of the treatment. It is called here so, because means of providing the cure were not effective and left much to be desired. Cure had changed by the time of hospital reconstruction. It was then renamed as Eastern Lunatic Asylum, but still the methods have many defects. The only thing which grasps attention is that restraints were of gentle character in terms of patients invigoration. The other thing is that together with shock therapy there was also work one, which intended to ennoble the mental shape of ill people.

It was known for contemporary doctors that the reason of such diseases was covered in the intellectual part of a man’s reality. It was generally considered that insanity was a physical illness, destructing the brain. In the eighteenth century the practice of the cure was not developed well, it possessed a picture of so-called intensive therapy. The logic about the issue propped against hypothetic methodology in treating the disease and logic, which was illustrated through a kind of magic.

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Regardless of the precise nature of the disorder, patients were treated in fundamentally the same way. An aggressive course of action was initiated, and, as a consequence, inmates were supposed to choose rationality over insanity. At the same time the doctors believed their medical procedures would restore a physical balance in body and brain. (Zwelling 13)

The development of the medicine stepped at that time by trial and error method. A crude attitude towards mentally ill people was not desired, but without some better ways of treatment doctors could not help but to use these methods. The humaneness as a main motive, on the one hand, did not work in hospital in terms of patients housing conditions, but, on the other hand, it helped to keep people of sound mind in safety.

The hospital saw fire and disrepair of six buildings including the main one, which provoked a fact that 224 patients were moved by the fire. It was the place where too many insane people found shelter in their problem, meaning insanity. It seemed like a citadel to secure ill people not to cause harm to sound ones. It is a historical building which claimed the mature wish of progressive people to make society safer and stronger implementing innovative methods in medicine and cure of insane people, particularly.

Nowadays, the building of the Public Hospital in Williamsburg is a museum. It was opened in 1985 and became a significant part of the tour around Colonial Williamsburg. There one can see the pictures and real conditions of the patients, trials and dramatic means of the cure, everything about that time, when ther was not enough information about such a disease. The cell conditions are also represented here to depict martyrdom of ill people.


To conclude, one should widely realize the attempts of people to treat mental illnesses with a wide range of methods using shock therapy, taboos and powerfull medications. The strong objective of contemporary scientists in the eighteenth century was to stimulate the degression of the mentally ill people within society. It was made not only to gather patients in one place, but to provide them with the recovery program. Such ways of treatment tend to pull around the society physically. Great were the steps of doctors in achieving this goal, but despicable is the therapy in curing the patients.

Works cited

Shomer S. Zwelling, Quest for a cure: the Public Hospital in Williamsburg, 1773-1885, Colonial Williamsburg, 1985.

James P. Whittenburg, Catherine Dolinski; The Meaning of Williamsburg – Colonial Cultural Calendar; World and I, Vol. 16, May 2001.

Edward Shorter , A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac, Edition: 2, John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

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Virginia, The statutes at large: being a collection of all the laws of Virginia, from the first session of the legislature, in the year 1619. Published pursuant to an act of the General assembly of Virginia, passed on the fifth day of February one thousand eight hundred and eight, Printed by and for Samuel Pleasants, junior, printer to the commonwealth, 1822.

Thomas J. Wertenbaker; The Shaping of Colonial Virginia, Russell & Russell, 1958.

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