Adams-Nervine Asylum – Home For The Patients With Nervous Disorders

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This asylum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, was initially incorporated in 1877 but wasn’t open until three years later in 1880. It was set in a very pleasant location on Centre Street, nearby to the Arnold Arboretum.

The estate of the Adams-Nervine Asylum with its winding driveway, majestic trees, and beautifully designed buildings were a prominent feature in the picturesque surroundings.

The front entrance. Author: City of Boston Archives CC BY-SA 2.0

In its beginnings, the building was owned by J. Gardiner Weld. The house was later purchased by Seth Adams, who had made his fortune from running a sugar refinery in South Boston.

Part of the stunning architecture. Author: City of Boston Archives CC BY-SA 2.0

In his will, Adams bequeathed $600,000 to be used for the establishment of a curative institution. Reflecting the growing recognition of nervous disorders, the institution was to be for the benefit of indigent, debilitated and nervous people, residents of the state that were not insane.

In 1879, the trustees purchased a number of neighboring properties and so, at its opening, the asylum was comprised of three major buildings accompanied by four other structures, naturally all from the 19th century. The oldest building found on campus was built in 1875 in the French Mansard style and bears the name J. Gardiner Weld House. In 1879, there were revisions made to the interior when the house became the administrative offices.

The Adams-Nervine Asylum back view. Author: Jameslwoodward CC BY-SA 3.0

Reasonably enough, the institution was to follow the plan devised by Thomas Kirkbride, a contemporary Philadelphian psychiatrist who invented a system of moral treatment for patients with nervous disorders. The interior of the asylum was artistically furnished and adorned with ornaments and pleasant pictures, all designed to calm the over-strained nerves of the patients.

The Adams-Nervine Asylum front view. Author: Jameslwoodward CC BY-SA 3.0

Because of the number of patients who were refused admission because of lack of space, in 1880 another house named the Adams House was built so that the asylum could accommodate a larger number female patients. A few years after the female ward was done, the House for Men was built in 1895. The total number of men that were housed in this asylum was never above 25 percent of the patient population.

Kirkbride’s model emphasized a home-style atmosphere, non-isolation, and the dignity of the patients as the most important factors in their treatment. Unlike other such institutions from that time, the Adams-Nervine Asylum always encouraged patient individuality and freedom of movement.

The asylum abandoned. Author: Jameslwoodward CC BY-SA 3.0

The first patient to ever step foot inside this institution did so on April 11, 1880. Once the asylum was almost filled to the top, a quick scan up and down the statistic showed that the majority of that patients were unmarried women.

And so the doctors quickly gathered and after a long series of debates they came up with the conclusion that the nervousness in these women was in direct correlation to them wearing themselves out from working and waiting upon others. The most stress related jobs of that time were found to be housework and teaching.

The asylum in 1975. Author: City of Boston Archives CC BY-SA 2.0

As s matter of fact, 50 percent of the victims of nervous disorders came from these areas, and a fifth of these were tagged under the title of “housewives”. The reasons, the doctors concluded, were overwork, anxiety, and sleeplessness.

But unfortunately, the number of recoveries that the asylum was producing were low. Dr. Webber, one of the doctors at the asylum, stated in an annual report “Many patients have been ailing for years, or have inherited a weak, nervous organization, and those among such patients whose means have been limited have been obliged to use their strength and energy in keeping the home circle unbroken”.

The asylum in 1981. Author: City of Boston Archives CC BY-SA 2.0

He further stated that “The strain of this upon a naturally weak, nervous system is severe, and in such cases, a partial recovery is the most that can be expected from a ‘few months’ stay at the asylum”.

What this meant was that the average stay of patients at the Adams-Nervine Asylum was a little over four months. Those that remained at the asylum as long as six months were considered lucky. Occasionally a patient remained for a year, but this was not considered desirable. At the end, the estate was vacated in 1976 and left to The Adams Trust.

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