Healthcare during the American War for Independence

September 4, 2023
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Williamsburg Public Hospital

THE REVOLUTIONARY SHORE – September 4, 1773

On this very day, 250 years ago . . .

Williamsburg doctors, workers, and politicians prepared to open the first public hospital for the mentally impaired in British North America. The “Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds” was more than a decade in the making and inspired by both Enlightenment thinking about patient care and good old economics. Virginia Governor Francis Fauquier proposed the hospital to the House of Burgesses in 1766:

A legal confinement and proper provision ought to be appointed for these miserable objects who cannot help themselves. Every civilized country has a hospital for these people where they are confined, maintained` and attended by able physicians to endeavour to restore to them their lost reason. 

It was authorized in 1770 and the first patient admitted on October 12, 1773.  Burgesses left the selection of prospective patients to local authorities.  For example, Shore folks identified by court officials as “disordered in his or her senses” were carried across the Bay to Williamsburg with depositions detailing their “irregular”” behavior.  A second on-site review determined if they stayed and who would pay. Patients with means were expected to contribute to the cost of their hospital care. 

The Public Hospital struggled through the American Revolution.  War, changing leadership, and competing public demands left the institution dangerously bereft of provisions and adequate medical attention.  The desperate challenge to supply the most basic human needs is plaintively documented in the surviving pages of hospital records.  

When hostilities again returned to Virginia, an Accomack County Unionist was appointed hospital superintendent. Dr. Gillet F. Watson arrived in Union-occupied Williamsburg in June 1862.  Although capable and well intentioned, his tenure did not last the summer. Disloyalty and intrigue plagued his short administration and he fled with withdrawing Federal troops. President Lincoln thought no man could do a better job than Watson, but others criticized his work and his complicated decision to lock up poorly supplied patients before evacuating. Gillet Watson already had his eye on a larger administrative goal—he wanted a seat in Congress. 

The Williamsburg Public Hospital again rallied and the building served until 1885 when lost to fire. A century later Colonial Williamsburg reconstructed the original hospital as an interpretive museum.  The work of the hospital continued in different forms in other buildings and is today known as the Eastern State Hospital. Learn more about this remarkable story and the events commemorating 250 years of care at https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/locations/public-hospital.

Join WESR on the 4th of each month to learn more about Virginia and the Shore’s role in the War for Independence.  Get ready for the Revolutionary Shore!  

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