The first days

Five days after the hospital had officially opened, the first patient finally arrived. Her name was Elizabeth B. of Londonderry Township. The 42 year old was suffering from dyspepsia and melancholy, most likely brought on by the loss of two of her three sons to scarlet fever the previous July. By late October of 1851 there were twelve patients at the hospital, six males, and six females and by the end of the first year there were 37 patients, 24 male and 13 female.

The first winter proved that the heating and ventilation system was insufficient and unsatisfactory. Various changes and additions were made to the system over the next few years but without any result. By the year 1855 the hospital population had grown to 164 patients. Also in 1855 the trustees told the governor of Pennsylvania that the hospital need immediate financial attention. In January of 1854 the state had appropriated $25,000 for the hospital, all of which had been expended, and the year 1855 was started with a debt of $12,800. The hospital's problems were not limited to money. On the afternoon of June 16, 1855, a tornado passed over the hospital, the damage caused was severe. The carriage house roof was blow off, and one wall was blown in. The north museum roof was also torn off, and the slate roof and spouting on the Main Building was badly damaged. On the night of May 12, 1859 the hospital barn was discovered on fire, the fire was reported to be the result of a former patient.

Progress on expanding and improving the hospital continued despite the set backs. In 1856  the water works was built in a hollow to the south east to help eliminate the hospitals ongoing water shortage problem. A dam was built that was capable of holding about 400,000 gallons of water supplied by a stream that crossed the property. The water was then driven through a sand filter bed and though six inch pipes by a ten horsepower steam engine that pumped the water up the hill to the wash house and the Main Building. The water that was pumped to the Main Building was stored in one of two 29,000 gallon tanks which were housed in the towers above the fourth floor at the junction of the first and second set of wings on either side of the building. Also that year, four "fire plugs" were installed across the front lawn. In the early spring of 1859 the grounds were carefully prepared and grass planted, by summer a beautiful lawn had grown and a fountain was installed.

The new sand filter bed, nearing completion



From the very beginning Dorothea Dix showed great interest in the hospital and it's patients. Without her urging to the state legislature in 1844 the hospital may have never even been founded. Even after the hospital began receiving patients she still continued her efforts. She collected a fund from the citizens of Philadelphia for the benefit of the patients; with this she furnished them with a bowling alley, two buildings for reading rooms and museums, horses and a carriage, magic lanterns with slides, musical instruments, and books. In consideration of the great services Dix rendered, in 1853 the board of trustees authorized the superintendent to receive and treat without charge any one person recommended for admission by Dix. The patient recommended by her entered the hospital on March 6, 1853, and remained until their death in 1895. After the death of Dix the trustees of the Philadelphia fund presented the hospital with her life-size portrait; this portrait still hangs in the Administration Building to this day (2009).

The portrait of Dorothea Dix still hangs in the Administration Building today (2008)

In February of 1853 the hospital received eight criminals who were diagnosed as insane from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Despite the best efforts of hospital staff four of the criminals escaped. They proved to be very undesirable for the hospital and demonstrated the necessity to create better provisions for the care of the criminally insane. Inmates continued to stay at the hospital until 1913 when the Hospital for Criminal Insane was opened at Fairview.

The hospital had opened with the price of room and board for public patients set at $2.00 a week. In 1854 that price was raised to $2.50. In 1859 an act of legislature enabled the hospital to collect outstanding debts from a number of counties. In 1883 the price for public patients was again raised to $3.00 per week. By the 1860s the finical problems seemed to be under control. From the years 1861 to 1865 the hospital received between $40,000 and $45,000 ($10,000 of which was from state funding). The sale of farm and garden items also help bring money to the hospital. By 1867 the state's financial contribution had risen to $15,000 and the amount received from patients rose to $56,664.71. However hospital expenses kept pace and the surplus that year was a mere $5.17.

During the Civil War the hospital provided assistance to the soldiers at Camp Curtin, which was located close by. Soldiers that were too sick to be cared for at the camp were brought to the hospital for treatment. Thousands of pounds of beef and ham, as well as gallons of coffee were served to the soldiers. Clothing was prepared for the sick and soldiers were allowed to use the hospital's bathrooms and laundry facility.

Camp Curtin with the Main Building in the background

Overcrowding problems occurred early in the hospital's history. In 1856 the opening of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane at Dixmont temporarily releaved some of the problem. But by 1867 overcrowding had returned and the board of trustees wrote to the governor in detail about the problem. The following year some of the bathrooms were converted into patient rooms and the infirmaries were used as wards to increase patient capacity. To try and take control of the problem it was also decided to only admit those whom had been most recently diagnosed with insanity. Patients that were recently diagnosed were seen as having a better chance of being cured. Overcrowding continued without resolve throughout the late 1860s and into the 1870s, and the looming threat of fire was always a concern. Many institutions for the insane had suffered from catastrophic fires in the past, and Harrisburg was not immune to this threat. Several fires had occurred at the hospital since it's opening, fortunately though, no fires had occurred in the Main Building.

In 1871 the ventilation system received a much needed upgrade. A new fan house was built about 200 feet behind the  Main Building. It contained two large, engine driven fans which forced air through the underground tunnels and into the Main Building. Flues located above the steam coils would then carry the fresh air from the tunnel into every room in the building.

Fan House

By the late 1860's all the original hospital trustees were gone, including Dr. Kirkbride. In 1870 the Board of Public Charities was established. The board was created to standardize data reporting and to eliminate compensation over appropriations between individual hospitals. The legislation had hoped to gain control over expenditures for the growing number of public charities in Pennsylvania. The new board was seen by the older asylum superintendents, including John Curwen, as an attack on their authority in the institutions. The board's first report in 1871 actually praised the hospital and it's superintendent. The report supported his demands for larger appropriations because of over crowding, and to correct the air quality problem. However by the late 1870's superintendent John Curwen came under fire and was being accused of mishandling funds, having too many paying patients, and giving them preference over the indigent. He was also accused of being frequently absent from his duties as superintendent. All the charges came up empty handed. However during the late 1870's the superintendent was frequently gone from the hospital because of being appointed as a commissioner to help setup several new hospitals, including the new state hospital in Warren. In March of 1881 the hospital trustees simply failed to reappoint him as superintendent and instead placed his first assistant, Jerome Gerhard in charge of the hospital.


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