Early History: 1840’s-1900’s
Two and a half miles west of downtown sits the site of Central State Hospital, Indiana’s first hospital for the mentally ill. The term “hospital” rather than “asylum” signaled the institution’s intent to cure patients rather than serving as long-term guardians. The state purchased the 160 acres of land, known as the Mount Jackson farm, for $4,000 from the Bolton family in 1845. The original five-story brick building opened for patients in 1848. Early on, the hospital was a political battleground; superintendent appointments changed with each new governor, causing unstable leadership. However, by 1870, the hospital cared for 792 patients. Rhoda M. Coffin, a popular Quaker social reformer and women’s rights advocate from Richmond, Indiana, urged superintendent Dr. William Fletcher to hire a female doctor for the hospital in 1884: Dr. Sarah Stockton. One of the more progressive superintendents, Dr. Fletcher also famously burned all of the patient restraints in a large bonfire in 1883. Issues with overcrowding began as early as 1908, because courts referred too many lawbreakers to the institution even when they suffered no mental illnesses. These space needs led to four other hospitals being established within the state. This changed the building’s name from “Indiana Hospital for the Insane” to “Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane,” later shortened to Central State Hospital.
The Old Pathology Building: 1895-1969
The Old Pathology Building, now the Indiana Medical History Museum, remains one of the few structures left on the historic site, along with the laundry building, men’s dining hall, power plant, and administration building. Constructed for psychiatric study and discovery, the Old Pathology Building exhibited the most modern building design and décor for the period, and came equipped with the best technology available. The superintendent at the time, Dr. George F. Edenharter, advocated for the construction of the pathology laboratory in 1895, which was completed in 1896. The Old Pathology Building exhibited the most modern building design and décor for the period. Containing bacteriological and chemical research laboratories, a 150-seat teaching amphitheater, and the hospital’s morgue/autopsy room, it was one of the paramount medical facilities of its day and the first associated with a mental hospital. The facility was designed to study the causes and treatments for mental illness. Lectures on topics like nervous system development, classifying insanity, manic-depressive psychosis, brain and spinal cord circulation, and spinal system diseases transpired in the amphitheater for local medical students and hospital staff members alike. Students from nearby medical colleges could observe autopsies in the evening—a growing necessity in medical teaching. The building was used continuously for education purposes until 1955. A non-profit organization was founded in 1969 to save the Old Pathology Building from demolition; the museum opened the following year.
During a national phase of deinstitutionalization, Governor Bayh initiated closing the hospital due to patient abuse allegations, necessary yet expensive facilities upgrades, and the idea that community-based care was more effective than institutional care for the mentally ill. By May of 1993, the 273 patients remaining moved to other institutions or were released.
Medical History Museum: Present
Today, the building is the oldest pathology facility still standing in the nation, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Through their exhibits, the museum focuses on interpreting the building and educating visitors on the evolution of the science of medicine during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Their collection includes scientific and medical artifacts, many of which are original to the building. The museum’s nineteen rooms function as exhibits and include various laboratories, an amphitheater, and an autopsy room, which maintain their original appearance and equipment.