2 Replies Latest reply on Dec 30, 2021 1:42 PM by LOC Manuscript Division

    Seeking records of first psychiatry program in US

    George Dawson Newbie

      I am interested in finding out the first psychiatry program in the US.  This is not as easy as it sounds and I have been researching it for years.  I have some of that research summarized in a blog post that I will link here that will include some dates and a timeline.  The history is not clear because of the fact that psychiatry is primarily a late 19th but mostly 20th century medical specialty.  Some including the American Psychiatric Association have suggested that it dates back to the Revolutionary War and Benjamin Rush. At that time and for the century that followed there were only asylum doctors who had a general interest in mental disorders but no postgraduate training. That was followed by a period of time where there were alienists who were probably closer to psychiatrists but their training was also unknown. After a period of transition where alienists and psychiatrists co-existed - the modern specialty emerged with postgraduate psychiatric training.  I am interested in when that first occurred and the specific dates.  The post at the link has what I have found so far. I have exhausted my resources. Any further information appreciated.



        • Re: Seeking records of first psychiatry program in US
          Rachael Salyer Ranger

          Dear Mr. Dawson,


          Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!


          The answer to your question may vary depending on how you define psychiatric programs (e.g. hospital with psychiatric or mental illness ward, schools that train doctors to treat mental illness, etc.). According to Harvard University’s website, for example, McLean Hospital | Harvard Medical School “is home to the nation’s oldest and foremost research program in a psychiatric hospital setting, and since 1888, it has been dedicated to studying the role of biological factors in mental illness.” In addition, Bellevue Hospital in New York is the nation’s oldest public hospital, and their psychiatric ward was established in 1879. Their historical records are part of the Medical Archives at New York University. The University of Pennsylvania also provides a History of Psychiatric Hospitals on their website. We suggest that you contact well-established psychiatric programs or organizations like these for further assistance with your research.


          We also suggest that you review historical newspapers like those available from the Library of Congress Chronicling America website. Your local public or university librarian may be able to direct you to additional relevant resources.


          Finally, since psychiatry is a relatively modern term, you may find more information by expanding your search terms to include a broader array of words that may have been used historically.


          We hope this is helpful.


          4 people found this helpful
          • Re: Seeking records of first psychiatry program in US
            LOC Manuscript Division Tracker

            Hi George,


            You may have already encountered this source, but there is a chapter from the book Core Psychiatry (Third Edition), titled “A brief history of psychiatry” by John Cookson. Perhaps your local library or institution can provide access through the database Science Direct or to the title itself (ISBN 9780702033971). A snipped is available online here.


            I would also second Rachael’s suggestion to look at existing programs for their histories, such as this one at the University of Pennsylvania. They note:

            “For most of the nineteenth century, Penn medical students were instructed in psychiatry primarily through lectures. They saw some patients at Pennsylvania Hospital and, after 1841, at the insane asylum located nearby in West Philadelphia. But exposure to psychiatry was limited. Not until the establishment in 1874 of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the first hospital in the country built by a medical school, did the study of mental disease begin to assume a prominent place in the institution. John J. Reese, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology, was Penn’s first acknowledged leader of a department of mental diseases, from 1883 to 1890, followed by Charles K. Mills, from 1893 to 1901. In 1901, Charles W. Burr was appointed Penn’s first Chair of Mental Diseases, marking the University’s official recognition of the study of mental disorders as the basis for a separate discipline. In 1912, a full century after the publication of Rush’s seminal work, the Department of Psychiatry was formally established.”


            You can find similar histories at other schools such as Johns Hopkins University, which notes “Psychiatry began at Johns Hopkins with the hiring of Adolf Meyer in 1908 as its first director. The construction of the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in 1913 revolutionized patient care and integrated psychiatry into a teaching hospital for the first time.”


            The Library of Congress Manuscript Division does also hold various scientific records that may be of interest, but may not necessarily provide a cut and dry answer.

            Rachael mentioned the Library's Chronicling America database; I'll also direct you specifically to our research guide for Asylums in the collection.


            Hope this helps you in your search!

            Reference Staff
            Manuscript Division
            Library of Congress

            4 people found this helpful