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Butler Hospital records

Historical note

Built on more than 100 acres of what was carefully developed into a calm oasis of lawn, gardens, nature trails and farm land along the banks of the Seekonk River on the outskirts of Providence, the hospital, later named Butler Hospital, was in essence founded by Nicholas Brown, who indicated in his will of 1840 that $30,000 was to go to the establishment of a hospital for the mentally ill at his death. Brown died in 1841, but the Dorr War delayed any further fund raising for several years.

In 1844, the General Assembly passed an act of incorporation for the Rhode-Island Asylum for the Insane and more than two dozen wealthy citizens with names that resonate in Rhode Island history like Ives and Manton were named as part of the corporation. This board then asked Cyrus Butler, a wealthy Providence businessman, to make a contribution. He offered $40,000 if another $40,000 could be raised from other sources. The pledge books and circulars in this collection show that the entire community became involved in the effort to establish the institution soon renamed Butler Hospital for the Insane. Many of the donations recorded were small, some for as little as $1.00.

The construction site was chosen in 1844 and the corporation asked Dr. Luther V. Bell of McLean Asylum for the Insane in Charlestown, Massachusetts to be the first superintendent. He declined the position, but offered to act as a consultant during the critical phase of design selection and the hiring of a director. The trustees of Massachusetts General Hospital which oversaw McLean went so far as to send Bell to Europe to survey the newest institutions and latest techniques in England and on the continent because they thought the information he garnered would be beneficial to both institutions. On his return, Bell recommended that the new institution be modeled after the Kirkbride facilities where the best treatment for a frazzled mind was thought to be the creation of a calm, home-like atmosphere. There, surrounded by beauty, patients could be cured by a combination of work, recreation and reading. On Bell's recommendation, Dr. Isaac Ray, then superintendent at the Hospital for the Insane in Augusta, Maine was chosen to be the first superintendent. Ray himself made a European tour at his own expense for further training in 1845 and returned to New England in time to oversee the construction of the new hospital.

The facility, erected in 1846-1847 had warm, open, airy rooms in small clusters with separate nursing stations and dining facilities for each group. The first patient was admitted on December 1, 1847. Dr. Ray's first report is dated January 26, 1848. Over the course of the next fifty years, consistent additions and improvements were made to the physical plant, including the gardens and the farm.

The single most important figure in the foundation of Butler Hospital is Dr. Isaac Ray. Much of the planning, all of the construction and the first 22 years of the functioning of the hospital were all under his aegis. He also chose a former protégé as his successor. Ray was born in 1807 in Beverly, Massachusetts, attended Philips Academy, Andover and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1827. He studied medicine in Beverly under Dr. Samuel Rand and in Boston in the office of Dr. George C. Shattuck. He began his practice of medicine in Portland, Maine in 1830 and after two years there, moved on to Eastport, Maine where he first turned his attention to the causes and treatment of mental illness. In 1841 he was appointed superintendent of the Hospital for the Insane in Augusta, Maine and was tapped by Butler Hospital to be their first superintendent in 1845. He took up his duties at there in May of 1846 when the facility was still under construction, issued his first report in January of 1848 and appointed his first assistant in 1849. He was careful to chose attendants for their humanity, patience and high character. He saw a clear connection between physical and mental health as well as physical surroundings and mental health. Ray kept restraints and medication to a minimum. He discouraged the sightseeing of the curious in search of entertainment, and even family visits were kept to a minimum if he thought the patients would be upset by them. He wrote many books and articles during his career and had a special interest in medical jurisprudence.