Mclean Hospital

History & Progress

Over 200 Years of Treatment, Research, Training, and Education

With a rich history spanning over 200 years, McLean is proud to be a leader in mental health. Many groundbreaking milestones in the field of psychiatry have taken place at McLean.

Learn more about McLean from 1811 to now.

McLean Hospital: A Brief History from Charlestown to Belmont

McLean Hospital was founded on Feb. 25, 1811, through a charter granted by the Massachusetts Legislature for the “Massachusetts General Hospital Corporation.” From its inception, the Corporation intended to treat both physical and mental illnesses, with a separate facility for each. Fundraising campaigns were held between 1812 and 1816, and a majority of the contributors earmarked their donations for the establishment of a facility to treat mental illnesses.

The old McLean Asylum in Charlestown, mid-1800s
The old McLean Asylum in Charlestown, mid-1800s

Consequently, more than 18 acres of the former Joseph Barrell country estate located about two miles outside of Boston in Charlestown, Massachusetts [later Somerville, Massachusetts] was purchased in December 1816. The Barrell mansion, which would become home to the Superintendent of the hospital and his family as well as the central administration building, had been designed by the renowned architect Charles Bulfinch in 1792. Bulfinch and his understudy Mathew Parris were instrumental in the adaptation of the mansion to its new purpose and the design of additional wings as patient living quarters.

McLean Hospital was first known as the “Asylum for the Insane,” a division of the Massachusetts General Hospital. The Asylum opened on Oct. 1, 1818, and admitted its first patient on Oct. 6, 1818. Following treatment reforms originating in France with Dr. Philippe Pinel and in England with Quaker William Tuke, the Asylum followed the principles of “moral treatment,” both in its choice of the country setting and in the care of its patients. The Asylum’s first superintendent, Rufus Wyman, MD, was the first physician appointed to such a post in America.

When the Asylum opened in 1818, it was the first hospital in New England, and only the fourth special institution for the treatment of the mentally ill in America. In June of 1826 the Asylum was renamed “The McLean Asylum for the Insane,” in honor of John McLean, a Boston merchant who bequeathed $25,000 and left a residuary legacy of more than $90,000 to the Asylum. In 1844, 13 Asylum superintendents from the Eastern Seaboard, including McLean’s Luther V. Bell, MD, (1837-1856 and 1857-1858), founded the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, now known as the American Psychiatric Association.

In the 1840s, 1850s, and early 1860s, the McLean Asylum in Somerville slowly lost its tranquil environment, deemed so important in the treatment of mentally ill patients. The Asylum had grown in size, including its number of patients, buildings and acreage. The railroads encroached on the land adjacent to the Asylum and by 1872, two tracks cut through the grounds. From 1872 through 1874, the Trustee Committee on New Sites for the Asylum separately commissioned the now famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and a local civil engineer Joseph Curtis to conduct site surveys and to report on a suitable site for the building of a new Asylum. In 1875, the Trustees, based upon the Committee on New Sites recommendation of July 18, 1873, purchased 107 acres on Wellington Hill in Belmont from the Waverley Land Company. While Olmsted’s involvement after 1875 cannot be documented, Joseph Curtis’ involvement in the development of the landscape and building arrangement continued through project completion and into the next century.

Otto Folin in his lab - black and white photo
Scientist Otto Folin in his research laboratory

Superintendent Edward Cowles, MD, (1879-1904) was intimately involved in the planning and construction of the new Belmont site. The Trustees and Dr. Cowles agreed that the campus should be developed and constructed according to a “cottage plan,” which called for the erection of a number of cottages where individual patients received care, surrounding a large administration building. According to Dr. Cowles, the cottage plan was intended to create a residential, rather than an institutional, effect for patients.

In 1892, at Dr. Cowles’ request, the McLean Asylum was renamed the McLean Hospital “in recognition of the present broader views upon the subject of insanity and its treatment.” In that same year, construction began at the Belmont site. In April 1895, the first patients were transferred from the Asylum in Somerville to Belmont. Exactly 77 years from the date of the opening of the original Asylum, the new McLean Hospital opened on Oct. 1, 1895.

200 Years of Trailblazing

For 200 years McLean has led the way in humane psychiatric care, scientific discovery, professional training, and public education.

Today McLean is the flagship mental health hospital of Harvard Medical School and Partners HealthCare, Boston’s leading health care system.

1811

The hospital was founded through a charter granted by the Massachusetts legislature. Many private donors earmarked their contributions for treating mental illness.

1818

The Asylum opened, a division of Massachusetts General Hospital. It was the first hospital in New England and the fourth in the US designed for treating people with mental illness. In its first three months McLean admitted 13 patients.

The Asylum was located in a tranquil setting in an area of Charlestown that is now part of Somerville. The hospital building had been designed and adapted by Charles Bulfinch, the renowned architect.

Rufus Wyman, MD, McLean’s first superintendent, was inspired by humane treatment reforms in France and England.

1826

The Asylum was renamed in honor of John McLean, a Boston merchant who in 1823 bequeathed the hospital $25,000, payable on his widow’s passing. After she died in 1834 the hospital received a gift totaling nearly $120,000, owing to a residual legacy of more than $90,000.

Vintage photo of the McLean Asylum in Charlestown
This early image of McLean, then known as The Asylum, back left, shows its original proximity to Massachusetts General Hospital, right foreground, separated only by the Charles River

1844

Luther V. Bell, MD, McLean superintendent, and 12 other asylum superintendents from the eastern US, founded the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane—now known as the American Psychiatric Association.

1870s

Trustees for the Asylum commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, the now famous landscape architect, and Joseph Curtis, a local civil engineer, to choose a new location for the hospital. The Charlestown setting of the McLean Asylum had been compromised by development and railroads.

1872

John Tyler, MD, McLean Superintendent, became the first Professor of Mental Disease at Harvard Medical School.

1875

The Trustees purchased 107 acres in Belmont. Working with Edward Cowles, MD, McLean Superintendent, they rejected an institutional design. Instead they planned a series of “cottages” that resembled private residences surrounding a large administration building.

1882

McLean opened the first psychiatric school of nursing.

1888

McLean was the first psychiatric hospital in the US that established basic and clinical laboratories to study the role of biological factors in mental illness.

1892

The McLean Asylum was renamed the McLean Hospital. Construction began at the Belmont site.

1895

The new McLean Hospital in Belmont opened on October 1, exactly 77 years from the date of the original Asylum opened.

Vintage photo of McLean nurses softball team circa 1918
The McLean Nurses’ Softball Team, circa 1918; until the mid 1950s, McLean staff worked, lived, and played on campus and staff could often be found playing softball, golf, tennis, or croquet during the warm weather months; during the winter, Upham Bowl was flooded for an ice skating rink

Until 1944, McLean was an almost self-sustaining community, operating a farm, an upholstery shop and a blacksmith shop. All food was produced on the McLean grounds, apart from fish and some meat and dairy products bought at Quincy Market, Boston.

2011

On February 25, the 200th birthday of McLean Hospital was celebrated in a historic charter renewal ceremony held at the State House, and reaffirmed its mission to improve the lives of individuals with psychiatric illness.

Today

McLean admitted more than 9,000 children and adults to inpatient and residential care. In addition, the hospital provided 58,000 day treatment and outpatient visits. Seven satellite programs across the state extend McLean’s presence and support through our communities.

McLean has been a setting in many books and films and a central subject of many history texts.

Historical Fun Facts

McLean Hospital is named for John McLean, a merchant, who upon his death in 1823, named the hospital the beneficiary of $25,000, payable on his widow’s passing. Upon her death in 1834, the hospital received a gift totaling nearly $120,000, due to a residual legacy of more than $90,000.

The famous children’s nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” was written about Mary Sawyer, an attendant who joined the McLean staff in 1832. As a child growing up in Sterling, Massachusetts, Sawyer adopted a sickly lamb that had been abandoned by its mother. As it grew stronger, the lamb began to follow Mary everywhere, even to school. John Roulstone witnessed the lamb’s devotion to Mary and was inspired to write a three-verse poem. Sarah Josepha Hale decided to incorporate the poem into a children’s book and added the final three stanzas to the poem. She called the book “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

In 1872, McLean Superintendent Dr. John Tyler became the first Professor of Mental Disease at Harvard Medical School.

Vintage photo of McLean’s snack bar in 1964
McLean’s first snack bar was located in the Centre Building; it moved to the Recreation Building in 1964

McLean opened the first psychiatric school of nursing in 1882.

In 1888, McLean Hospital was the first psychiatric hospital in the United States to establish basic and clinical laboratories to study the role of biological factors in mental illness.

McLean Hospital moved to Belmont in 1895, to a plot of land that was chosen by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

As late as 1944, McLean was a self-sustaining community, operating a farm, an upholstery shop and a blacksmith shop. Beyond fish and some meat and dairy products bought during two weekly tips to Quincy Market, all food was produced on the McLean grounds.

Bicentennial Celebration

With an historic charter renewal ceremony held at the State House on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 McLean Hospital, the first psychiatric hospital in New England and the third oldest in the country, celebrated its 200th birthday and reaffirmed its mission to improve the lives of individuals with psychiatric illness. The ceremony marked the exact day two centuries prior—in 1811—that McLean and its partner institution Massachusetts General Hospital were chartered by the Massachusetts Legislature.

“While many things have changed since our founding, our commitment to the people we serve remains the focal point of our mission today,” said McLean Hospital President and Psychiatrist in Chief Scott L. Rauch, MD. “Speaking for the hundreds of members of staff of our beloved institution, I reaffirm our dedication to McLean’s precious mission of compassionate clinical care, scientific discovery, professional training and public education in order to improve the lives of people with psychiatric illness and their families.”

A Look Back

Originally located in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the Asylum, which was renamed McLean in 1826, accepted its first patient on Oct. 6, 1818.

According to McLean Hospital Historian Terry Bragg, prior to McLean, individuals with mental illness were most often hidden and housed in jails, almshouses and private homes, where they received minimal medical or humane care. However, under the guidance of its first superintendent, Dr. Rufus Wyman, McLean forever changed how New Englanders with mental illness were treated.

Vintage photo of McLean’s professional staff, circa 1891.
McLean’s professional staff, circa 1891

“Dr. Wyman believed in a more enlightened approach to treating the mentally ill and introduced to New England “a revolution in treatment,’ based on kindness and compassion. The aim of treatment was to cure not subdue,” explained Bragg. “The first tenet of the hospital was and remains today that patients be treated with compassionate care, with dignity and respect.”

Filling the Needs of the Mentally Ill Yesterday and Today

In its first three months, McLean admitted 13 patients, including a 22-year-old man from Wrentham, a 32-year-old merchant from Newbury Port and a 37-year-old woman from Malden. By 1821, 149 people had received care at the Asylum. Today, McLean annually admits more than 9,000 children and adults to inpatient and residential levels of care, renders more than 58,000 day treatment and outpatient visits and provides support in the community through seven satellite programs across the state.

“Meeting the mental health needs of communities across the Commonwealth is a role McLean has played throughout the years, making specialized psychiatric care more accessible,” said Rauch. “And though the region we serve has expanded beyond Massachusetts, with patients coming from New England, across the United States, and around the globe, our tradition of providing compassionate care endures. Our bicentennial is as much about the future as it is about our history. As we enter our third century, we remain devoted to developing ever-better therapies, to pursue prevention, and to eliminate stigma.”

On its birthday, McLean received a joint resolution from the House and Senate and a citation from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick commending the hospital and its staff for their continued commitment. In addition, then Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared Feb. 25, 2011, Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital Day in the city of Boston.

Research History

Scientific investigation at the McLean Hospital started in 1888, when the hospital established laboratories and facilities for the study of pathology, psychology, microbiology and chemistry. Never before had research laboratories been placed within the clinical setting of a psychiatric institution in the United States, and possibly the world. For over a century the evolution of the McLean research program has led to a unique confluence of clinical and laboratory resources for the study of psychiatric disorders. The following timeline illustrates some of the milestones of research at McLean.

Nineteenth Century

  • 1811 – The first mental hospital in New England is founded as part of the new Massachusetts General Hospital. It later becomes McLean Hospital.
  • 1882 – The first School of Nursing in a psychiatric hospital opens at McLean.
  • 1888 – McLean establishes basic and clinical laboratories to study the role of biological factors in mental illness. It is the first such research program in a psychiatric hospital in America.
Vintage photo of Frederic Packard, circa 1920
Before motor vehicles became a standard form of transportation, horses were used to get around McLean and the town of Belmont; pictured here is one of McLean’s former superintendents Frederic Packard, circa 1920, who was superintendent of McLean from 1919 to 1929

Twentieth Century

  • 1944 – Dr. Jordi Folch-Pi is named McLean’s first Director of Scientific Research.
  • 1946 – The Biological Research Laboratory (later to evolve into the Mailman Research Center) opens.
  • 1951 – Brain proteolipids are discovered at McLean. They are a new class of molecules necessary for brain structure and function, and their discovery provides a basis for understanding normal brain development and abnormalities underlying psychiatric illness.
  • 1957 – McLean develops a procedure, adopted worldwide, for extracting and identifying brain lipids. It is a key advance toward improved understanding of brain structures.
  • 1960 – McLean becomes the first center for electron microscopy in a US psychiatric institution, providing the ability to view the structure of individual nerve cells in the brain.
  • 1973 – Established the first Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center in a private American psychiatric hospital, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive research facility of its kind devoted to the study of addictive disorders.
  • 1977 – The Laboratories for Psychiatric Research are established in the Mailman Research Center, doubling the size of the building and adding two new floors.
  • 1978 – McLean establishes the country’s first National Institutes of Health- and private-foundation supported Brain Bank for the study of neuropsychiatric diseases.
  • 1983 – McLean releases the first clinical report on the use for beta-blockers to treat restlessness (akathisia), a major side-effect of antipsychotic agents.
  • 1984 – McLean establishes the first controlled outcome study evaluating the effects of psychoanalytic psychotherapy for patients with schizophrenia. The results of this study spurred a new generation of psychosocial approaches in the treatment of this disorder.
  • 1988 – McLean develops and identifies diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorders adopted by the American Psychiatric Association and the World Psychiatric Association.
  • 1988 – McLean becomes the first psychiatric hospital in the world to establish a Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center.
  • 1990 – McLean is number one among private US psychiatric hospitals in Public Health Service research.
  • 1994 – McLean develops and introduces the BASIS-32 outcomes measurement scale, one of the most widely-used in the United States.
  • 1994 – McLean is the first to use in-vivo magnetic resonance spectroscopy to detect alcohol tolerance in humans and the effects of alcohol and other drugs on brain blood flow.
  • 1995 – The first study in healthy children combining anatomic, chemical and functional data on brain development begins at McLean. The results of the investigation will provide a better understanding of normal brain development and serve as a basis for evaluating changes associated with psychiatric illness in children.
  • 1996 – Researchers at McLean discover the first evidence indicating a chemical abnormality of nerve-cell function in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, a finding that ultimately leads to the first FDA-approved treatments for Alzheimer’s.
  • 1998 – McLean is the first to publish reports that the use of steroids by body builders is associated with the induction of psychiatric symptoms, including violent behavior.
  • 1999 – McLean is the first to demonstrate that absorption of the essential nutrient choline into the brain decreases with age. Reversing this deficit may lower the risk of late-life neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Vintage photo of nurses in class at McLean, circa 1960
Nurses in class at McLean, circa 1960; McLean established the first psychiatric nursing program in the country in 1882, graduating its first female class in 1886 and its first male class in 1888

Twenty-First Century

  • 2000 – The Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center at McLean (the “Brain Bank”) receives its 5,000th donated brain specimen. The largest Brain Bank in the world, the HBTRC distributes specimens to 4,000 researchers annually.
  • 2001 – The Neuroimaging Center opens. This is the third building on campus exclusively devoted to research and houses a 4.0 Tesla magnet, one of less than 20 magnetic resonance scanners in the world with this field strength.
  • 2002 – McLean Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center (ADARC) received the largest single grant in McLean’s history. The $6.4 million grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to study cocaine abuse and how to better treat it.
  • 2004 – During a White House ceremony, McLean Hospital researcher William A. Carlezon, Jr., PhD, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).
  • 2007 – McLean Hospital investigators conducted the first national survey of individuals with eating disorder, showing that binge eating disorder is more prevalent than either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
  • 2011 – McLean Hospital became the first psychiatric hospital in the nation to receive accreditation from the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs (AAHRPP). The voluntary accreditation, announced last month, is for a three-year period. McLean joins its parent institution, Partners HealthCare, in receiving accreditation from the AAHRPP.
  • 2013 – Ole Isacson, Dr Med Sci, director of the Neuroregeneration Research Institute at McLean Hospital and one of the world’s preeminent experts in the use of stem cell therapies to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, was recently invited by Pope Francis to present his work at the Vatican.
  • 2014 – The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) awarded the Julius Axelrod Prize to Joseph T. Coyle, MD, chief scientific officer and chief of the Basic Neuroscience Division of McLean Hospital. The Julius Axelrod Prize recognizes exceptional achievements in neuropharmacology and in mentoring young scientists.
Vintage photo of construction work on the McLean tunnels in the 1800s
Construction work on the McLean tunnel system at the hospital’s Belmont site began in 1893 and was completed in 1895

Books About McLean

McLean has been a setting in many books and films and a central subject of many history texts. Below are books that contain more information about the hospital’s rich history in the field of psychiatry:

Early Years of McLean HospitalEarly Years of the McLean Hospital
by Nina Fletcher Little
(Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, 1972)


Crossroads in PsychiatryCrossroads in Psychiatry
by Silvia B. Sutton
(American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1986)


Girl InterruptedGirl Interrupted
by Susanna Kaysen
(Turtle Bay Books, 1993)


Gracefully InsaneGracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital
by Alex Beam
(Public Affairs, 2001)


McLean Hospital: A Personal MemoirMcLean Hospital: A Personal Memoir
by Francis de Marneffe
(Coolidge Hill Press, 2010)