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History of Psychology: Asylums for the Wealthy

History of Psychology: Asylums for the Wealthy Money may not buy you love. But in the 19th century, if you were well off, it could snag you a “home-away-from-home” private hospital. These rich-only places were a far cry from the overcrowded and filthy public asylums of the day, according to this article in March’s issue of Monitor on Psychology.

The terrible conditions of public asylums that prompted physicians to open their homes to wealthy psychiatric patients. Rich patients could expect tranquil, scenic environments and — for that time ­– state-of-the-art treatments. Boris Sidis was one of the physicians who established a private hospital.

As psychologist Ellen Holtzman, PsyD, writes in the piece:

In 1910, Sidis opened a private asylum, the Sidis Psychotherapeutic Institute, on the Portsmouth, N.H., estate of a wealthy New Englander. Hoping for referrals from psychologically minded colleagues, he announced the opening of his hospital in the Psychological Bulletin and advertised it in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, which he had founded. The ad noted that he would treat patients by “applying his special psychopathological and clinical methods of examination, observation and treatment.”

Sidis touted the luxury of the asylum’s accommodations and setting, even more than the availability of psychotherapy. “Beautiful grounds, private parks, rare trees, greenhouses, sun parlors, palatial rooms, luxuriously furnished private baths, private farm products,” wrote Sidis in his brochure describing the institute. Moreover, he offered his patients the somatic treatments of hydrotherapy and electrical stimulation, as did his less psychologically minded colleagues. The emphasis on luxury combined with the availability of the popular somatic treatments, even in an institution created by an “advanced” thinker like Sidis, suggests that wealthy patients expected a traditional, medical approach to treatment.

Staying in these small and serene asylums didn’t come cheap. Sidis charged $50 to $100 per week (and more), which he expected to be paid prior to admission. To put that into perspective, $50 then translates into about $1,000 today.

Over time, the number of private asylums grew, and some doctors even expanded their facilities to accommodate more patients. According to Holtzman:

The small private asylums were quite successful for a number of years. There were only two in Massachusetts in 1879 and more than 20 by 1916. In addition, the asylums frequently started small and grew. The Newton Nervine asylum was a case in point. In 1892, N. Emmons Paine, a Boston University Medical School instructor, opened the Newton Nervine in his own home with four patients.

Over the next 10 years, he added three buildings to accommodate a total of 21 patients. A reported increase in the number of mentally ill individuals over the course of the 19th century may have contributed to the success of the private asylums. “A good many people are beginning to realize that nervous diseases are alarmingly on the increase …. Nerves are the most ‘prominent’ complaint of the 19th century,” wrote one reporter in an 1887 issue of the Boston Globe.

Check out the article to learn more and read what happened to these exclusive asylums.

You can learn more about Boris Sidis’ sonWilliam James Sidis here, who was a child prodigy.

History of Psychology: Asylums for the Wealthy

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). History of Psychology: Asylums for the Wealthy. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Apr 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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