One of the functions for America's first hospital was proposed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond to be the humane treatment of Lunaticks, who would otherwise be wandering the streets of Philadelphia. Nearly three hundred years later, it is possible to look back on the topic and see an uncertain history.
Essentially, the pendulum swings between a humane goal of bringing these poor victims inside, out of the weather, on the one hand, and getting them out of those snake pits so they can enjoy the benefits of being part of the community, on the other. Every couple of decades, the disadvantages of one approach attract attention, and public opinion demands the opposite. Even the era of effective treatment, which began with Thorazine in 1960, has not relieved the central difficulty, because these people often or usually rebel and stop taking their pills; it is not clear that forcing them to take pills is any greater denial of liberty than forcing them to live in a small room. In 2006 and for the prior five years, a grizzly, disheveled old man who talks to himself has pulled old cardboard around him and slept on the steam grate across the street from the Pennsylvania Hospital. Occasionally, someone summons a passing patrol car which sometimes does and sometimes does not, haul him away.
In March 1765, a remarkably neat and tidy sailor was admitted to the Hospital as insane, and was kept among the other insane patients in the basement rooms. He wandered out, however, and was chased around until he took refuge in the glass cupola that still adorns the roof of the East wing, facing Eighth Street. It was obvious that he would soon have to come down to eat, but the Quakers who ran the hospital at that time would have none of it; they didn't starve their patients. So a mattress was passed up to him, and regular meals. Nothing much could be done about the cold, which must have been pretty severe, but the patient was allowed to remain in the cupola until 1774 when he died. Nine years of room service in the cupola.
In 1790, the wife of Stephen Girard, the richest man in America, became insane and was admitted. The hospital felt she could go home in a couple of months, but her husband insisted that she stay. She died there, twenty-five years later. At today's rates, comparatively few people could afford that approach, even if the ethical issues could be settled. However, for over a century a great many people were essentially domiciled in the chronic psychiatric unit at Market and 44th Streets
For fifty years after that, a subacute psychiatric unit was maintained at 49th and Market, but ultimately the Federal Government found a smokescreen of confusion, sufficient to hide the awkward political backlash. One by one, the huge human warehouses at Byberry, Philadelphia General Hospital, Bellevue in New York and similar places, went out of business. The public wouldn't stand for "snake pits", even Medicare couldn't afford to put millions of insane people into luxury hotels like 49th and Market. And even though there were a few hundred or even a few thousand families that could afford to pay for humane domiciliary care, they had to be sacrificed. A government medical system, essentially run as a political pork barrel, can not afford to permit the continued existence of a visible rebuke by a two-class system.
So, now we're giving these people the benefit of integration into community life, right?
Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Tuesday, April 30, 2019