Bryce Hospital group seeks historical preservation

Published 8:42 am Monday, July 27, 2009

Since it opened in 1861, Bryce Hospital, then known as the Alabama Insane Hospital, has been an imposing structure midst a wide expanse of green lawn and graceful trees, its white dome visible for many miles.

Unfortunately, along with its host city, Bryce became a household word across Alabama, a target of jokes made by those threatening good-humoredly or otherwise to have a loved one committee to the institution. “We’ll have to take you to Tuscaloosa.”

At a deeper level, Bryce history is a paradox, having been the scene of the very best in mental health care mid-19th century, offering humane care when other hospitals used close confinement, shackles and harsh treatment. At the other end of the spectrum, a century later, it found itself underfunded by the state, housing more than 5,000 patients in a facility built for a few hundred. Very little, if any, treatment was offered.

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The institution had prevailed even during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, supporting itself through patient farming of its own food. It was respected, even copied, nationwide. A century later its terrible condition brought about the Wyatt v Stickney civil rights trial which led Federal Judge Frank Johnson to rule that patients could not be confined without treatment, a landmark decision which became a catalyst for similar decisions across the country.

In recent months, Bryce has made headlines because its grounds encompass 188 acres next door to an expanding University of Alabama. The UA wants the large tract of land which lies between the original campus and the school’s medical complex.

Studies have been made for the best solution for all sides, primarily for top patient care in a new facility, but also for the best use the University might find. In the midst of this, in April 2008, John Houston, state mental health commissioner, created the Bryce Hospital Historic Preservation Committee, filling it with individuals who had links to the hospital, charging it to find ways of preserving the historic elements of Bryce.

The group is seeking to get the largely unknown full message about the hospital across the state and beyond.

In 1847-49, Dorothea Dix, national advocate for humane mental health treatment, and State Senator Robert Jemison urged the legislature to create such a facility. Mr. Jemison lobbied for it to be built in his hometown and the bill was enacted in 1852.

The structure was state-of-the-art for mental hospitals, the vision of Thomas Kirkbride, designed by architect Samuel Sloan with the intention that the building would be part of the treatment. Instead of cells, patients were housed in private rooms in pleasant surroundings.

The first patients were admitted in 1861, the year that the Civil War started, and Dr. Peter Bryce was hired as its first superintendent because of his therapies fostering moral treatment. He led the hospital through pace-setting therapies respected everywhere. At his death in 1892, the hospital was named for him.

Plagued by lack of state funds during the early 20th century, by 1960 it received in some years only $3 per day per patient. At that time the hospital population had soared to 5,000, in a complex designed for a few hundred, many of the patients being simply warehoused with little or no treatment. A probate judge could have people committed by families who simply could not cope with their loved ones.

By 1971, neglect and sometimes abuse, brought about the Wyatt v Stickney case and patients were ordered released by Judge Johnson, a ruling which set the pace for psychiatric care across the country.

While negotiations are ongoing, Houston’s advisory body would like to see the venerable old building preserved, used by the University, and reserving a small portion for a museum of mental health for tourism and research.

Chaired by Dr. Thomas Hobbs, executive director of a Jefferson County community mental health center, the group says antiques, old portraits and other artifacts once gracing the hospital buildings are scattered across the state, along with patient-made furniture and handwork. They think it is possible for a myriad of Bryce artifacts to be returned for potential display in the museum, including old pictures, diplomas from the erstwhile Bryce nursing school, historical documents, clinical uniforms and other pertinent objects.

Last summer, Steve Davis was hired as Bryce Hospital historian to facilitate preservation of documents and to seek artifacts and information for a museum. He has been speaking at meetings across the state to help educate the public about importance of Bryce preservation.

For now, committee members are planning a public even on Bryce grounds on October 6, to enhance respect for patient cemeteries where thousands are buried.

For more information, contact historian Steve Davis at 205-759-0711 or online at or Dr. John Zeigler at the Alabama Dept. of Mental Health, Public Information Office, at 334-242-3417.