Early Insane Asylums — Bedlam and Beyond

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William Henry Toms [Public domain]

Bethlem Hospital

The very first “lunatic asylum” was Bethlem Hospital, which also came to be known by its nickname Bedlam. It was founded in the 13th century in an area that at the time was just outside of London. It started off as a church priory with the purpose of collecting alms and housing the poor. Over time the purpose evolved, and it’s speculated that by 1377 it had become an insane asylum. It’s clearly documented that by 1403 this was its purpose.

“Treatments” included leeches, blood-letting, ice baths, starvation, and beatings.

In the 1700s, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, began using “rotational therapy”, which involved spinning a patient around and around on a chair or swing for up to an hour. The vomiting that this induced was seen as a good thing.

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William Norris, shackled on his bed at Bedlam. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
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William Norris restrained by chains at the neck and ankles in Bethlem hospital, London. Coloured etching by G. Arnald, 1815, after himself, 1814. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY
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Man in restraint chair at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, UK — H. Clarke, 1869– Wellcome Trust

Asylums in the United States

A supposedly more humane alternative to ropes and chains was developed in the 1700s — the straitjacket. In the United States in the 1800s, the mentally ill began to be shifted from poorhouses and prisons to asylums, with the number of asylums growing from 9 to 62 between the years 1825 and 1865.

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Minnesota Council on Developmental Disabilities

The present day

From that little stroll through history, we return to the present day. Bethlem Royal Hospital still exists, after having moved sites in 1815 and again in 1930. It’s now part of the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS). The NHS website section devoted to the history of the hospital conveniently glosses over the messy bits.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle | mentalhealthathome.org

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