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History of Western State Hospital

Established - 1871

Western State Hospital is located on the site of historic Fort Steilacoom.  Fort Steilacoom served as a military post from 1849 to 1868 when the federal government abandoned it. The Washington territory purchased the fort with the intent of turning it into a hospital for the insane. The new hospital, called the "Insane Asylum of Washington Territory," opened in 1871 with 15 men and 6 women patients transferred in from Monticello, Washington.

The period between 1871 and 1875 was very difficult for the new hospital. A local businessman had contracted with the legislature to look after the daily needs of the patients. At the same time, a resident physician was hired to provide psychiatric treatment and medical care. Unfortunately, patient neglect became so bad at the hands of the businessman contractor, that the Medical Society of the Washington Territory had to intervene. The Medical Society was instrumental in influencing the legislature to abandon the dual-management system and to place total care of the patients with a medical superintendent.

Statehood in 1889 brought about another change to the hospital: the name was changed to Western State Hospital. When the number of patients reached 200, a committee was selected to locate an accessible location for a second state hospital. Medical Lake in eastern Washington was chosen as the site for Eastern State Hospital, as it was only eight miles from the main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and was on three stage routes.

As times changed for the new State of Washington, so did methods for treating the mentally ill admitted to Western State Hospital. Hydrotherapy was the early treatment of choice. Wet packs, hot tubs and showers were used for nearly 50 years to create a calming effect for the patients. Insulin therapy was started in the mid 1930's, followed by electric shock therapy. A surgical procedure called the frontal lobotomy was used for a period of time. It was later replaced with psychotropic drugs, counseling, and behavior modification therapies which are all still used today.