Even today, nearly 50 years after the ivory columns and terraced gardens of Western State Hospital had long cracked and overgrown, a certain gravity hangs tangibly in the air. The somber grounds make for a serene afternoon stroll, but one laced with weighty history. From 1828 to the 1970s, hundreds of Virginia’s mentally ill called this massive Classical Revival complex home.
As I rested on the rim of an empty fountain basin and scrutinized the bed of leaves that had settled there, I envisioned the patients who had once done the same, peering at instead pools of water.
Western State’s initial mission was arguably a modern one: handicapped rehabilitation. Patients wandered the landscaped greens and ornately-decorated facilities, the beauty of which aided their recovery. Dr. Francis T. Stribling, the asylum’s first director, advocated such “Moral Medicine,” healing through social interaction, comfort, and outdoor excursions.1 The calm loveliness of the Blue Ridge Mountains was certainly an ideal setting to test his theories.
This utopian model, this haven for the mentally ill, quickly fell by the wayside. In 1905, Dr. Joseph DeJarnette took the reins at Western State, imposing a 38-year rule of eugenic experimentation and discrimination. He required countless patients to participate in involuntary sterilization in hopes of improving American society. He famously composed the verse: “Defectives will breed defectives, / and the insane breed insane.”3
It may be difficult to visualize the innocuous building’s sinister past, so silent it now stands. However, a deeper reading into Western State’s walls reveals a dark saga in American medical practice. Learning about this and other historical asylums reminds us of how we have yet to grow in regards to fair treatment for our handicapped peers.