Next week, I'll continue the story of Woodmont, for this week, we have the story of the State Hospital from volunteer Michael Green.
July 12, 2017 marked the 137 year anniversary of Norristown State Hospital’s first patient admission. This is according to the History of Norristown State Hospital (1995). The hospital property was constructed on two hundred sixty-five acres in Norristown Borough. In 1876, the Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized the governor to construct a mental health hospital on what was largely farm land. The land was obtained from eight local landowners. A number of the original buildings stood and, in some cases, still stand on the property.
From the 1995 history of the State Hopital
From the beginning, the asylum was opened to serve male and female patients though in separate dormitories. The region of service was Montgomery County and the surrounding southeast Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, Chester, Northampton, and Lehigh.
Prior to establishing the hospital, mentally ill individuals were housed in overcrowded county almshouses and hospitals. There were no uniform standards of treatment or care. In contrast, Norristown State Hospital offered innovative approaches to mental health care and housing under a uniform administrative structure. The hospital was the first to construct the “cottage model” developed in Belgium. “Moral therapy” allowed for as much individual liberty as the patient’s condition allowed. A number of wards were left unlocked for set periods of time. The goal was to minimize or eliminate mechanical restraints. Work assignments, occupational therapy, therapeutic recreation all supplanted the psychological service rendered by staff.
The staff of the Norristown State Hospital
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, electroshock therapy and lobotomies were methods of treatment. Psychotropic medications were introduced in the 1950’s to manage the symptoms and behaviors of the mental illnesses.
The patient population reportedly grew from some 400 patients in the 1880’s to 3250 in 1928. In 1954, 4700 residents were housed in the hospital. By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s mental health treatment began emphasizing providing services in the community instead of hospitalized institutional settings. The state hospital census dropped from 3200 in 1963 to 1700 in 1973. In recent times the hospital’s population has been some 300 or fewer residents.
No longer do the hospital’s patients raise crops and livestock on its farmland. This change occurred in the 1970’s with changes in the law regarding peonage. The hospital and its role in addressing mental health services continues to evolve. We look forward to the next chapter as time moves onward in this new century.
Modern photo by Michael Green