Establishment of the Alabama Insane Hospital

Before the construction of the Alabama Insane Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, care of the state’s people with mental health conditions had been a private responsibility. Wealthy and educated families could provide attendants and humane treatment for relatives with mental health conditions, but all too frequently less affluent, desperate families consigned loved ones to locked rooms, outbuildings, or heavy restraints. The extremely violent or criminally insane were sometimes jailed with common criminals.

In 1846-47 Dorothea Dix, an internationally known crusading philanthropist, visited Alabama to advocate on behalf of the deaf, blind, and the insane.

The Alabama Medical Association was formed in 1847 in Mobile. One of its first items of business was to discuss the need to establish a state asylum. A recommendation was presented to the legislature by Dr. Benjamin Hogan of Dallas County.

In 1849 Miss Dix returned to Alabama to have a speech on the need for a state asylum read to the legislature by Senator George N. Stewart. The speech described the plight of people with mental health conditions across the nation in graphic detail:

I have seen hundreds of patients restored to their health and returned to the enjoyment and blessings of domestic life: and I have seen thousands living in misery, wearing life slowly out in dungeons, in cells, in pens, in barns and outhouses, exposed to every variation of weather, filthy and neglected, abandoned of friends, cared for with less consideration than the oxen in the stall, or the swine in the sty; melancholy monuments of the imperfections with which society discharges its social and moral obligations.

On Nov. 15, 1849, a bill to establish a state insane hospital was read to the legislature by Senator Stewart. It was not passed during that session because a fire had seriously damaged the capitol building in Montgomery. The necessity of expending a large sum of money to rebuild the capitol apparently dampened the altruistic instincts of the legislators.

On February 6, 1852, after considerable effort by Miss Dix and the Alabama Medical Association, the Alabama legislature passed a bill to establish the Alabama Insane Hospital and appropriated $100,000 to purchase property and construct the building. The decision to place the hospital in Tuscaloosa the legislature was largely influenced by Senator Robert Jemison, Jr. from Tuscaloosa County. 326 acres of land adjacent to the University of Alabama was purchased for $6,525 from Robert Ellyson. Before constructing the hospital Dr. Aaron Lopez of Mobile toured the country’s “most approved” insane hospitals to determine the best plan of construction and governance. He also sought guidance from the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Hospitals for the Insane (AMSAHI).

Architecture of Bryce Hospital