The Beginning of Friends' Asylum

The York Retreat became the inspiration for the Friends' Asylum when an American Friend, Thomas Scattergood visited it during a trip to England. Thomas Scattergood was a traveling minister, and he spent six years (1794-1800) visiting Quakers in England as a part of his ministry. He suffered from depression, and he was impressed by the Retreat’s humane treatment of the mentally ill. When he returned to the United States, he argued that American Quakers should start an institution similar to the York Retreat. It took a while for momentum to build around the project, but in 1812, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) started a committee charged with founding the asylum. The committee was not directly affiliated with PYM; instead, individuals and Meetings in the Yearly Meeting donated to the concern itself. This committee soon split off into a Managers’ Committee and a Building Committee, which each had numerous subcommittees. The Quakers involved in these committees worked to develop a constitution for the Asylum and determine the parameters of its mission over the next four years.

Curable Patients

"except a few cases… the present family of boarders are the most uninteresting we have had for a long time, nearly all of them considered incureables [sic.]… [U]nless new objects should be introduced there will be but little to encourage either the Managers or us in the prosecution of the concern." Isaac Bonsall, Twelfth Month, 16, 1821

The Asylum managers had very specific ideas about what type of patients they wanted the Asylum to serve when it opened. They were not interested in being a holding facility for people with no hope of recovery. They wanted the Asylum to be a place that cured people and sent them back out into the world. Nevertheless, the Asylum was unable to avoid chronic patients. As long as at least some of the patients were curable, the founders thought the Asylum was worthwhile. However, without a hope of curing any of the patients, the Asylum did not seem like a useful place to its founders. In this vein, they looked to accept patients with a better chance of recovery, which, to them, meant patients who had only recently gone insane.

Spurzheim and Insanity

The Asylum’s preference for recent, curable patients fit into contemporary medical theories about types of insanity. Johann Spurzheim, a leading expert on insanity whose works were available to the managers of the Asylum, wrote that insanity was, “the incapacity of distinguishing the diseased functions of the mind, and the irresistibility of our actions” (53). Within that definition, Spurzheim argued that the traditional medical distinctions between mania and melancholy as types of insanity were false. He divided insanity into other categories, such as idiotism and fatuity. Spurzheim defined idiotism as “the diseased inactivity of any faculty of the mind since birth,” and fatuity as the type of insanity that occurred when patients lost their minds later in life (72). Bonsall used the terms similarly at the Asylum. People who suffered from idiotism were thought to be very unlikely to recover, and Bonsall employed the word “fatuity” to refer to the state of patients who were not expected to recover. He also distinguished “idiots” as outside of the scope of the Asylum.