The Alabama Department of Mental Health was created by legislation passed in September 1965, two years after national legislation concerning community treatment programs and two years before Alabama 310 legislation was passed. Prior to the creation of ADMH, there had been three facilities, with Searcy and Partlow falling under the supervisory authority of Bryce Hospital for nearly 110 years. During the next 50 years, the department grew to 14 facilities throughout the state, however, only three remain today - Bryce Hospital, Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility, and Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatry Center, each located in Tuscaloosa.
Bryce Hospital, was brought about by the movement for a hospital in the state with the lobbying of the legislature by Dorothea Dix in 1846. It was the priority of Dix; whose goal was to have a hospital in each state to provide services to individuals with a mental illness.
With help from Governor Henry Collier, the bill to establish the Alabama Insane Hospital (renamed Bryce Hospital) was passed in 1852. Dr. Aaron Lopez of Mobile was part of an elite committee to procure plans for a state-of-the-art hospital. He presented plans designed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, whose design was used by most hospitals in the 19th century. Dr. Kirkbride declared the Alabama plans as the best of his career. The building was one of the few Kirkbride buildings using an Italianate design to complement the architecture at the adjacent University of Alabama.
Dr. Peter Bryce was named the first Superintendent based on recommendations of Dr. Kirkbride and Dorothea Dix. Bryce, a pioneer in psychiatry from South Carolina was a proponent of moral treatment and considered a national expert on the new defense of “Not guilty by reasons of insanity.”
The first patient was received on April 5, 1861, and was diagnosed with Mania A, caused by political excitement. The Civil war started one week later, and the hospital received almost received virtually no funding. Dr. Bryce was able to keep the hospital operating after the war with loans and grants from Dix and the Freedman’s Bureau, due to providing treatment to African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
In 1882, Dr. G.A. Tucker of Australia in his famous work “Lunacy in Many Lands” named the hospital as one of the world’s best institutions. Bryce was named the Alabama Citizen of the Century by the Birmingham Post-Gazette for its patient management and commitment to offering various work programs to the patients.
At the beginning of 1870, the patient population grew, and the hospital was continuously warned about its constant overcrowding. By 1970, the hospital served 5,200 patients and unfortunately, the hospital saw a decline in the standards of care due to the patient and staff ratio, eventually leading to a court suit.
In 1970, the Wyatt v. Stickney case came about due to patient quality, which lasted for nearly 33 years. The outcome led to the most important changes in the delivery of service to individuals committed to institutions for the treatment of mental illness in the United States.
In 2010, the campus was sold to the University of Alabama. With help from the University, a new hospital was built on the old Partlow Campus with patients being moved in 2014. Currently, the original building is being renovated to be used for the School of Performing Arts and museum dedicated to the history of mental health in Alabama.
Searcy Hospital, known as Mt. Vernon Insane Hospital in 1902, was the second of the three facilities, served the state for 110 years, and has a most intriguing history. Prior to being obtained by the State of Alabama, the property had been a federal cantonment, an arsenal, barracks, and a prisoner of war site. It is the only property in Alabama to be placed on the National Preservation Trust’s “Most Endangered Sites” in America.
Many famous Americans are associated with the Mount Vernon Arsenal/Barracks Complex. The area was first used as a cantonment for the United States forces during the War of 1812 and the Creek Indian Wars. The site was selected by President Andrew Jackson as an arsenal with the plans for the campus approved by him. While stationed at the arsenal, former President of the University of Alabama Josiah Gorgas met his famous bride to be, Amelia Gayle, who was the daughter of a former governor. Together the two had a son, William Crawford Gorgas, who became known for eradicating yellow fever in the Panama Canal Zone.
The commander of the arsenal in 1861 was Captain Jesse Reno. The city of Reno, Nevada was named in his honor. During the Civil War, the arsenal was captured by Confederate forces but reverted to Federal control after the war became a barracks.
The barracks became home to the imprisoned Chiricahua Apache warriors and their families from 1887 until 1894. The most famous of the warriors was Geronimo. With Walter Reed as commander of the barracks, Geronimo had the freedom to ride the train to Mobile and sell his autograph and attend parties. When the prisoners were moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma the United States had no need for the property, and ownership was transferred to the State of Alabama.
The property received its first patients from Bryce Hospital in 1902. Searcy was a segregated hospital and was restricted to African American patients only until 1969 when it was integrated by court order. The hospital was integrated and served the southern third of Alabama until it closed in 2012. The campus is closed to visitors due to safety concerns.
Partlow Developmental Center was the third facility to open in Alabama. Legislation was passed in 1919 that allowed individuals with an Intellectual Disability to receive treatment in a state facility in Alabama. The bill to establish the institution was passed in 1921 and the construction stage lasted until 1923 when the first patient was committed.
The facility was located about two miles from Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa. While it had its own Board of Trustees like Searcy Hospital, the facility was under the supervisor of the Superintendent of Bryce. Partlow was the only facility for the treatment of intellectual disability in the state until the opening of the Wallace Center in Decatur, Alabama in 1970.
Like the other two facilities, Partlow was almost self-sufficient with a large farm managed by residents of the institution. All original buildings were demolished and replaced by 1990.
The facility was known for the George Linsey Aquatic Center, award-winning publications in the 1980s, and an extensive recreation department. Partlow closed in October 2011. The original campus is now home to the new Bryce Hospital and several administrative departments of the University of Alabama.