Lobotomy Hospital

Opened in 1855, the Government Hospital for the Insane was the first federally operated psychiatric facility in the United States. Dorothea Dix, a mental health activist and advocate, played an important role in the creation of the hospital; along with the first superintendent, Dr. Charles Nichols. Construction began in 1853 as a modified Kirkbride hospital. Two other buildings were also built for black patients, one for men and one for woman, because of the institutionalized racism during the time. By July 1855, 60 patients resided at the hospital and that number had risen to 93 by June 1856. Fees for patients typically ranged from $5 to $15 per week. During the Civil War portions of the hospital were repurposed as an army and navy hospital. After the war, the hospital became the temporary home to a number of animals brought back from expeditions that were meant to go to the National Zoo but due to a lack of housing they ended up at the hospital. The hospital expanded dramatically, by more than 1,000 beds, in the early 20th century under charge of a new superintendent, Alonzo Richardson. Unfortunately, Richardson would only serve as superintendent for 4 years until his death in 1903. In 1924, American physician, Walter Freeman, relocated his studies to the Government Hospital for the Insane after being rejected for a job in Philadelphia. After witnessing the pain and distress suffered by the patients at the hospital, and with the treatments of the time being electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, and limited psychotherapy, Freeman set out to find a physical cause for mental illnesses. It should be noted that his feeling towards the patients was more disgust and shame, describing them in his own words, “[They inspire] a weird mixture of fear, disgust, and shame. The slouching figures, the vacant stare or averted eyes, the shabby clothing and footwear, the general untidiness—it all aroused rejection rather than sympathy or interest.” Mostly working in the hospital’s morgue, Freeman had lots of patients as mental hospitals at the time all suffered from severe overcrowding. He performed thousands of autopsies at the Government Hospital for the Insane with one study claiming he examined nearly 1,500 bodies of schizophrenic patients. It is there were Freeman transformed the works of neurologist and physician Egas Moniz, into what became known as the prefrontal lobotomy. Freeman would practice and perfect the lobotomy as he would perform the autopsies. Freeman left the Government Hospital for the Insane in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression when most mental hospitals were suffering financially while Freeman’s private practice was actually growing. In the 1950s, the hospital began to decline. Its accreditation fluctuated being lost and gained several times before the hospital finally closed in 1987. In 2010, a new mental heath facility was built on the property however the old buildings still remain to serve as a reminder of the past. The future of the old hospital is unknown.


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