Friends’ Asylum Demographics, 1817-1837

Over the first two decades the Friends’ Asylum admitted 540 patients. Fortunately, very good records survive—in the form of an Admissions Book, other admissions and discharge documents, Superintendent’s Daybook, and Medical Casebooks—that allow us to reconstruct what types of patients were at the Asylum, what forms of insanity staff at the Asylum recognized, where patients came from, how much they paid to stay there, and what sorts of treatment they received. Unfortunately, all that information is not (yet) in a form that is very handy. But even this overview of patient demographics drawn from the Admissions Book raises interesting questions.

Pages from the “Admission Book, Friends’ Asylum for the Insane” showing entries for patients nos. 369-414, admitted from October 23, 1833 to January 15, 1834.
Pages from the “Admission Book, Friends’ Asylum for the Insane” showing entries for patients nos. 369-414, admitted from October 23, 1833 to January 15, 1834.
Summary of Patients Admitted to Friends’ Asylum, 1817–1837
Total Single Married Widowed
Men 287 (53%) 154 (54%) 115 (40%) 15 (5%)
Women 253 (47%) 131 (52%) 82 (32%) 35 (14%)
Total 540 (100%) 285 (53%) 197 (37%) 50 (9%)

In the first twenty years, the Asylum readmitted 74 patients more than once. One male patient was readmitted 10 times, another two were readmitted 6 times, approximately 60 were readmitted at least twice. Extreme readmission rates seem to have declined slightly in the 1830s, i.e., the numbers of patients readmitted more than twice.[1]

Almost half the patients were discharged as “Restored,” but again that number disguises the fact that of the 24 patients admitted three times or more, they were discharged 27 times as “Restored.” In the case of the male patient admitted 10 times, he was discharged 8 times “Restored.”

Patients Condition on Discharge from the Asylum
Total Admissions Restored Much Improved Improved Stationary Died
Men 286 130 (45%) 34 (12%) 30 (10%) 39 (14%) 53 (19%)
Women 253 104 (41%) 33 (13%) 34 (13%) 34 (13%) 48 (19%)
Total 539 235 (44%) 67 (12%) 64 (12%) 73 (14%) 101 (19%)

Before being admitted to the Asylum patients had suffered from their affliction anywhere from 2 days to 48 years. The average length of time admitted patients had been insane was about 3 years and 4 months. Patients stayed in the Asylum as few at a couple days (many of these very short stays ended in the patient’s death) to nearly 47 years (many of these very long stays also ended in death, though probably for different reasons). 70 patients (42 males; 28 females) admitted during these first two decades spent less than a month in the Asylum. 30 patients (18 males; 12 females)admitted during the same period spent more than 10 years in the Asylum.

While the vast majority of patients were local—198 from Philadelphia, 189 from Pennsylvania, and 88 from New Jersey—as the Asylum’s reputation grew in the 1830s patients started turning up from more distant places, e.g., Virginia, North and South Carolinas, Ohio, and Indiana.

The early patient entries are incomplete, many of the columns in the Register were left blank.[2] In the mid–1830s staff began recording both the forms and supposed causes of a patient’s insanity. “Mania” and “Dementia” are the two most commonly recorded forms of insanity. While both are so common as to seem generic labels rather than specific diagnoses, staff did distinguish between different causes of these generic afflictions.

Common forms of insanity & their causes
Form Supposed causes
mania abuse of opium, amenorrhea, blow to the head, bodily injury, congestion of the brain, defective education, disappointed affection, domestic trouble, intemperance, masturbation, paralysis, pecuniary difficulty, puerperal, religious excitement
dementia domestic trouble, epilepsy, fever, pecuniary difficulty
monomania religious excitement

That the same causes give rise to different forms of insanity suggests staff were observing different symptoms. The range and types of supposed causes raise questions. How is “defective education” (suffered by a 17yo male; restored after a month) and “amenorrhea” (suffered by a 20yo female; restored after 3 months) related? At first glance, the first seems entirely social, while the second seems more like a biological cause.

This information suggests many different topics to pursue and, as I mentioned previously, this summary hides fascinating individual stories (yes, Patient #33’s story is still pending). As I work through the other sources and analyze the information I compile, I will continue to post my conclusions. Stay tuned.


  1. The outliers, the patient readmitted 10, raises all sorts of questions. The number of patients readmitted twice seems to have been fairly constant, but is right now an approximate value because the Patient Registers are not complete.  ↩

  2. Some of this information can be gleaned from other sources. As I work through these other sources, I will fill in what details I can.  ↩

Patients at the Friends’ Asylum, 1817-1833

On May 15, 1817 the Friends’ Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of their Reason opened its doors to patients. Over the previous three and a half years the board of local, influential Philadelphia Quakers had raised money to purchase land, had overseen the design and fabrication of every aspect of the project, and had contracted with local craftsmen to build the Asylum.

View of the Asylum from annual report for 1820, State of the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason (1820)
View of the Asylum from annual report for 1820, State of the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason (1820)

In early 1817 the first superintendent, Isaac Bonsall, and his family moved into the Asylum buildings and completed the final preparations for its opening. When the Asylum opened its doors for patients, Bonsall with some disappointment noted in his daybook that no patients turned up:

Isaac Bonsall noted in his daybook that the “House is considered open“ yet no patients came. See “Superintendent’s Daybook, vol 1”
Isaac Bonsall noted in his daybook that the “House is considered open“ yet no patients came. See “Superintendent’s Daybook, vol 1

Fifth 15
This day the House is considered as open for reception of Persons deprived of the use of their reason but none came. 17 other persons were here—

Bonsall had little reason for concern. Five days later the first patient arrived, a 48 year-old woman who had “been 11 Years insane—She appears to be of the Melancholy cast.” People continued to bring patients to the Asylum, entrusting family members to the care of Bonsall and the Asylum’s staff. Over the first 15 years the Asylum would admit more 350 patients. Here is an initial overview of those patients, compiled largely from the Patient Register.

Over the first 15 years more men than women were admitted to Friends’ Asylum. Most (just over half) of the people admitted were single, a third were married, and about ten percent were widowed (the numbers don’t add up to the total (363) because the Patient Register doesn’t record marital status for every patient).

General Summary of Patients
(admitted through 1833)
Total Number Total Percentage Single Married Widowed
Men 194 53% 106 79 7
Women 169 47% 84 52 28
Total 363 (100%) 190 131 35

These rough numbers obscure the 51 patients who were admitted more than once, one as many as 10 times. Removing these, 280 unique patients were admitted to the Asylum.

Of the total number of patients admitted, almost half were considered “Restored” when they left the asylum.

Patient Condition on Leaving the Asylum
Total Admissions Restored Much Improved Improved Stationary Died
Men 194 82 (42%) 30 (15%) 18 (9%) 26 (13%) 38 (20%)
Women 169 70 (41%) 26 (15%) 21 (12%) 16 (9%) 36 (21%)
Total 363 152 (42%) 56 (15%) 39 (11%) 42 (12%) 74 (20%)

What exactly “Restored” meant, however, is unclear. The patient who was admitted 10 times was released the first 8 times “Restored,” the ninth “Much improved.” When he was admitted the last time, he spent more than two years there before finally dying in the Asylum “of Inflammation of the Stomach” (in total he spent three and a half years in the Asylum).

Patients stayed in the Asylum anywhere from 2 days to more than 40 years (14724 days). The average length of stay is 27 months. Patients who were there only a couple days as well as those who were there for years tended to die in the Asylum (probably from different causes—the former probably suffered from some acute illness, the latter from some chronic condition or simply old age). The median length of stay was 155 days.

Although the founders of the Asylum might have had a preference for “recent, curable patients,”[1] in fact it seems that many of the patients admitted over the first 15 or so years had been insane for more than two years. One patient was listed as having been insane for 44 years (another twenty or so had been insane for more than 20 years). At the other extreme, about 30 patients were listed as having been insane for fewer than 10 days.

Average duration of insanity before admission. For some reason 1817 and 1830 have particularly long average durations.
Average duration of insanity before admission. For some reason 1817 and 1830 have particularly long average durations.

Patients ranged in age from 16 years to 93 years. The average age for both men and women was 40.

Most patients were local. 122 were from Philadelphia and another 136 from Pennsylvania. 68 came from New Jersey. After that numbers dropped off quickly: e.g., 11 from Delaware; 7 from New York. A few came from as far away as Virginia and Rhode Island. In one case, a patient had previously been a patient in the York Retreat in England.[2]

This aggregate survey of the patients at the Friends’ Asylum, drawn largely from the Patient Register, raises all sorts of interesting questions, e.g., Why were some patients readmitted so many times? What did they mean by “Restored” or “Much Improved?” What symptoms were considered evidence of insanity, especially in the cases where a patient had been insane for 2 or 3 or 4 days? Because it effaces the individual patients, this survey of the Patient Register also raises questions about the stories of those individual patients, such as the young woman, patient #33, whose family brought her to the Asylum late one Saturday. She had been insane for six days….

Her story will be the subject of a future post.


  1. On the Asylum’s possible preference for “recent, curable patients,” see the excellent Quakers & Mental Health, especially the “Foundations of Friends’ Asylum” page.  ↩

  2. Friends’ Asylum was modeled on the York Retreat. See, “The York Retreat” and “Foundations of Friends’ Asylum.”  ↩

A Letter from James Ferguson

Buried in Haverford College’s Quaker and Special Collections is a substantial collection of autographed letters and other miscellany. Many letters were written by astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists, and others we might call (problematically or not) scientists.[1] Leafing through the collection recently, I came across this letter from James Ferguson on behalf of Lord Charles Cavendish. Writing on 5 July 1765, Ferguson seemed to be trying to get some equipment to carry out experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids (if the note at the bottom of the letter is accurate).

James Ferguson’s letter to an unnamed correspondent. Ferguson was assisting Lord Cavendish with experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids.
James Ferguson’s letter to an unnamed correspondent. Ferguson was assisting Lord Cavendish with experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids.

In the previous few years John Canton had published in the Philosophical Transactions his results on the compressibility of water and other fluids, his “Experiments to Prove That Water is Not Incompressible” 52 (1761–62): 640–643 and his “Experiments and Observations on the Compressibility of Water and Some Other Fluids” 54 (1764): 261–262. The first paper described a his experimental apparatus and reported his findings, that water was compressible. His results disproved commonly held beliefs about the compressibility of water. But his apparatus and method were complicated and his results were, therefore, not universally accepted. He followed up his initial report with further experiments on water and other fluids, e.g., spirit of wine, olive oil, mercury. He confirmed his initial results and, further, found that water “has the remarkable property of being more compressible in winter than in summer,” by which he means cold water is more compressible. At 64° water was compressible only 44 parts per million; at 34° it was compressible 49 parts per million. The other fluids he tested were all less compressible in winter than in summer, i.e., when cold than when hot. He was nominated for a second Copley Medal for these experiments.[2] But before it was awarded, a committee of the Royal Society investigated his results.[3] Ferguson’s letter might give us a glimpse into Lord Cavendish’s efforts to confirm or extend Canton’s results.[4]

Ferguson was a largely self-taught instrument maker with a strong interest in astronomy and mathematics. In the 1740s and 1750s he became something of a popularizer of astronomy—he gave lectures and published books on astronomy for people who did not have training in mathematics. He also designed and made instruments. He was unsuccessful in his effort to become clerk of the Royal Society when he applied in 1763, but was soon elected fellow. In 1765 Cavendish asked Ferguson to help set up an experiment on the compressibility of fluids in the Royal Society House. Ferguson dutifully carried out the task:

Sir,
I have just been with Lord Charles Cavendish, who acquainted me of the thing contained in your Letter, and desired me to call upon you, to give you the following informations

1. To send to Mr Nairne (opposite the Royal Exchange) to desire him to send every thing that belongs to the Condenser, if finished, to the R. Society house.
2. That you sit up Shelves to hold glasses, if not already done.
3. That you provide for [sic] or five pound weight of small shot.
4. And two pound weight of Quicksilver.
5. A funnel (to be made at a Tin-Shop, with a pipe ten Inches long.
6. Conveniencies (Tea or Coffee pots) for boiling & pouring in hot water.
7. To see whether weights for weighing things in Scales are sent in.
8. A sponge.
9. Qu. whether you could assist to morrow, and how far.

I shall call upon you by and by; but must first go to a Turner’s Shop to get some things done for Lord Charles about the Experiment.
Excuse this bad paper, for I have none else in the house at present, and was loth to detain your Servant till I should send for some, who am with respect,
Sir, your most humble Servant,
James Ferguson

Friday 1 o’Clock

NB 5 July 1765 [in a different hand]
For Experiments on the Compressibility of Water & other Liquids [in a different hand]

It is tempting to see the X’s next to the items in the to-do list as evidence that Ferguson’s correspondent (who is unnamed in this letter) had completed that task. I wonder what prevented him from attending to the first and the last item? And finally, I find Ferguson’s apology for the poor quality paper fascinating for what it suggests about, inter alia, the letters Ferguson normally wrote (he implied that he typically wrote on higher quality paper), the mechanics of getting better paper (he just sent out for some), and the nature of correspondence at the time (a servant was waiting while Ferguson wrote the letter).


  1. I’ve mentioned some of these before, e.g., Ernst Haeckel’s Letter to E.D. Cope or Maria Wants Her Sextant Back or Edmond Halley Complains about the Clouds  ↩

  2. Canton had received a Copley Medal in 1751 for his method of making artificial magnets.  ↩

  3. This delay is reported in the The Dictionary of National Biography entry on Canton. The list of Copley recipients indicates that Canton received the second medal for his work in 1764, which if the DNB is correct, indicates the year he published his work not the year he received the medal. See the list of Copley Medal winners  ↩

  4. Or perhaps Cavendish was carrying out additional experiments on thermometers—in the late 1750s he had published “A Description of Some Thermometers for Particular Uses” in the Philosophical Transactions  ↩

Isaac Newton & Muzzle Brakes

It seems to be “strange uses of Isaac Newton” week. Following up on the humorous Newton was a cyclist we now read in Field & Stream this strange patchwork of Newton factoids that casts him as the inspiration for muzzle brakes.

Field & Stream on Isaac Newton and Muzzle Brakes
Field & Stream on Isaac Newton and Muzzle Brakes

I confess, I really don’t understand how these two stories got intermingled here. Yes, Newton pressed a sharp object—although a bodkin can be a dagger-type instrument, here it was probably more like a large needle, but I suppose a knife is more recognizable to Field & Stream readers than a bodkin—into his eye socket when contemplating light and colors. And yes, Newton did formalize his third law of motion. But he didn’t press the bodkin into his eye “for exploration” (whatever that means) and in the process (of exploration? of pressing a knife into his eye?) think up his third law of motion. Those are two distinct episodes.

They are absolutely correct, however, Newton was a “very odd duck.”

Isaac Newton the Cyclist

Michael Hutchinson offers one of the more amusing and creative stories of Isaac Newton and his three laws of motion in a recent post for Cycling Weekly, Dr Hutch: Isaac Newton was a time trial list, and I can prove it.

Michael Hutchinson on Newton the cyclist.
Michael Hutchinson on Newton the cyclist.

And while this version may not have tradition behind it, if you’ve spent much time cycling it will make more sense than that whole apple falling from a tree story.