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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 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.
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.
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.
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 Mass General Brigham (formerly Partners HealthCare), Boston’s leading health care system.
The hospital was founded through a charter granted by the Massachusetts legislature. Many private donors earmarked their contributions for treating mental illness.
The Asylum opened, a division of Massachusetts General Hospital. It was the first hospital in New England and the fourth in the U.S. 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.
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.
Luther V. Bell, MD, McLean superintendent, and 12 other asylum superintendents from the eastern U.S., founded the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane—now known as the American Psychiatric Association.
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.
John Tyler, MD, McLean Superintendent, became the first Professor of Mental Disease at Harvard Medical School.
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.
McLean opened the first psychiatric school of nursing.
McLean was the first psychiatric hospital in the U.S. that established basic and clinical laboratories to study the role of biological factors in mental illness.
The McLean Asylum was renamed the McLean Hospital. Construction began at the Belmont site.
The new McLean Hospital in Belmont opened on October 1, exactly 77 years from the date of the original Asylum opened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 the McLean Hospital
by Nina Fletcher Little
(Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, 1972)
Crossroads in Psychiatry
by Silvia B. Sutton
(American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1986)
by Susanna Kaysen
(Turtle Bay Books, 1993)
Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital
by Alex Beam
(Public Affairs, 2001)
McLean Hospital: A Personal Memoir
by Francis de Marneffe
(Coolidge Hill Press, 2010)
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