America’s First Private Mental Hospital Is Still Open Today

Two centuries ago, people with mental illnesses were viewed as socially deviant and even possessed. Often incarcerated, homeless, or otherwise cast out, there was little sympathy—let alone medical treatment—for people suffering from depression, mood disorders, or other psychiatric conditions.

But in Pennsylvania, people dealing with mental illness could find help at the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason, or the Friends Hospital, which opened its doors May 15, 1817. Although the name of America’s first private mental hospital wasn’t exactly sensitive (at least by today’s standards), the “friends” part was real—it was a reference to the Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends.

Quakers had a different perspective on people with mental illness. The Quaker religion recognizes what they call the Inner Light—a divine spirit that they believe inhabits every person, sick or well. As a result, people are seen as deserving of dignity no matter what their mental health condition. After all, Quakers themselves knew what it was like to be treated as outcasts: After fleeing England for the sake of religious freedom, they faced persecution from Puritan colonists who saw them as threats to the social order. Only after William Penn founded his own colony—Pennsylvania—in 1681 did Quakers find a place of their own.

But mental illness affected the tight-knit Quaker community in both America and England. In the 1790s, a young Quaker woman named Hannah Mills was placed in a York, England lunatic asylum and died soon after. Appalled by her treatment, her fellow Quakers decided to set up an asylum of their own in York, one that was run on Quaker principles and that would treat people with mental illnesses “as much in the manner of a rational being as the state of his mind will possibly allow," according to an early history of the asylum.

The York Retreat, as it was called, was an inspiration to an American Quaker minister named Thomas Scattergood, who was no stranger to depression. He decided to call for a similar institution in Philadelphia, and in 1813, local Quakers organized the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason.

Philadelphia already had a lunatic asylum—the country’s first hospital, which cared for the physically sick as well as those suffering from mental illness. But the Pennsylvania Hospital was crowded, and even though it was a pioneer of psychiatric treatment in that it saw mental illness as a disease, mental patients were often treated as curiosities. Visitors could pay money for a glimpse of the “lunaticks” inside, turning both their suffering and their treatment into entertainment.

The new asylum was different. Instead of putting patients on display or dishing out corporal punishment, it offered what Quakers called “moral treatment.” Patients lived in bright, airy rooms and the windows’ iron bars were disguised as wood. Caretakers treated patients as calmly and respectfully as possible and practiced early forms of talk and occupational therapy. Patients helped run the farm and participated in leisure activities. The hospital’s mission statement focused on both body and mind, pledging to provide patients the “requisite medical aid, [and] such tender, sympathetic attention as may soothe their agitated minds, and under the Divine Blessing, facilitate their recovery.”

Its philosophies were ahead of its time, but the hospital’s practices also reflected the medical beliefs of its era. Freezing shower baths, “blisters” designed to swell the skin and distract patients, and bleeding—common treatments for physical ailments among patients without mental illness—were used at the hospital, too [PDF]. But by treating its patients as humans, not inmates, the hospital set a new standard for psychiatric care.

As the years passed, the hospital began to admit non-Quaker patients and even incorporated pet therapy and a gym. Today, the hospital treats adolescents, adults, and seniors and includes a long-term residential program designed to give patients access to permanent housing and psychiatric resources without confining them to the hospital.

The hospital now admits over 5000 patients per year. It’s dropped its old-fashioned name, but it’s still run by Quakers, and the stately Scattergood Hall—a National Historic Landmark—is the first thing new patients see as they’re welcomed to the hospital. The hospital’s 1813 mission statement is still in effect, too. The definition of “tender, sympathetic attention” for people with mental illness may have shifted, but the purpose of America’s first private mental hospital has not.

Original image
NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
Original image
NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]


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