Enjoy this three-part series describing the history of New Hampshire Hospital, written by Director of Psychology, Paul Shagoury. These articles originally appeared in the Hospital newsletter, The Pulse.
Part I | Part II | Part III | PDF of this article
From opening the door to the first patient in October 1842, NHH (at that time New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane) the number of patients increased steadily every year for more than one hundred years. The growth was slow over the first decades, and the Asylum became known for its successes. The therapy consisted primarily in taking patients away from the stresses and worries of their environment, attending to their physical needs, occupying their time in useful and pleasant activities to prevent excessive self-absorption, and providing a “benign atmosphere” marked by kindness and respect. New Hampshire Asylum and other fledgling facilities of the time accomplished a remarkable change in public attitude toward insanity by demonstrating that mental illnesses were curable diseases, something completely contrary to the popular beliefs of the time.
The Asylum was not a state institution, although the State granted money for the construction of the original building (Main Building, which now serves as an administrative office building). Patients were charged $2.25 per week. Patients who were indigent were admitted with an agreement that their expenses would be paid by the town Selectmen or County Commissioners of their home communities. The charges dropped to $2.00 per week for several years. Patients who were not residents of New Hampshire (from Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and occasionally further away) were charged 25 cents per week more. The Hospital was a working farm and grew much of its own food and dairy products without need for financial help from the State throughout its first almost 70 years. The farm, on which patients were welcome to labor to the extent they chose, was an important part of the congenial healthy outdoor activities that characterized the program of care. The farm activities prospered and continued into the 1960’s.
The patient census grew from 47 the first reporting year (1843) to 225 patients in 1857. That year, 1857, a new energetic superintendent was appointed. This was Dr. Jesse Bancroft. He and his son, Dr. Charles Bancroft (“young Bancroft”) supervised the Hospital for sixty years. Dr. Jesse Bancroft initiated. He brought with him many new ideas, as well as a warm and apparently charming personality. Here is a quote that captures one of his theories of cause and treatment:
“But, while the forms and causes in which the diseases of the mind and feelings are manifested are almost without limit, one thing is true in all: namely a morbid concentration of the thoughts upon the self, with an intensity proportioned to opportunity. The mind inclines to retire upon itself, shut out the rest of the world, and make self the center of all thoughts and interests.
It becomes therefore a leading object in treatment to interfere with this world of the self- scatter its creations and fancies, and people it with objects and thoughts foreign to its own.”
Dr. Bancroft introduced in 1871 a new and powerful drug that had been developed, Chloral Hydrate. This was used (and still may be used) as a strong sleeping agent; Dr. Bancroft described its use (and we can easily imagine from our own experiences with sleepless nights how true this is) as a “great boon to sleepless sufferers”. Here is his description of its introduction: “We commenced the use of this drug a little more than a year ago. It being a powerful medicine, and new to physicians as such, we proceeded cautiously with the trial of it. From our observations thus far, we have reason to be gratified with the results”. His son, Dr. Charles Bancroft, was no less dynamic innovative and effective. He became superintendent in 1882, and continued with new ideas and new treatments as well as reinforcing the essential “healing factor” of respect and dignity along with sanguine interactions with staff and healthy activities. Charles Bancroft led the initiative to create new and “home-like” buildings for the patients. This led to the first new buildings (instead of adding wings to Main Building) at the Asylum. Thus Bancroft Building (named for Dr. Jesse Bancroft) was opened in 1892 and Twitchell House in 1894. Perhaps his most outstanding achievement was the creation of the School of Nursing, opened its doors in 1888. Graduates from the School of Nursing were known to be among the best trained in the area, producing many outstanding graduates (a distinguished few still serving on the staff) until it closed in 1983.
Dr. Bancroft retired in 1n 1917 from a very different institution than he inherited. The census of had grown to over 1,000 patients. An Act of the New Hampshire Legislature in 1903 began a process of the Asylum becoming a State institution. The transition to the State’s responsibility occurred over the last more than decade of Dr. Bancroft’s tenure. This began an entirely different development in the treatment of New Hampshire’s mentally ill.