Adams-Nervine Asylum - Boston Globe Article

Group of nine caregivers outside the Adams-Nervine-Asylum in Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Courtesy Historic New England.

Group of nine caregivers outside the Adams-Nervine-Asylum in Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Courtesy Historic New England.

A good many people besides the doctors are beginning to realize that nervous diseases are alarmingly on the increase.  To use that abominable word which nowadays parades all newspaperdom, nerves are the most “prominent” complaints of the nineteenth century -  at least, on this side of the water.Is it our climate, or is it the mad pursuit of the “mighty dollar” that makes so many American martyrs to what is known as “nervous prostration.”  No doubt both are potent factors of what threatens to become the great national weakness.  In view of this condition of things, it is a comfort to know that there are places dedicated to the care and fate of the victims of nervous disorders.  The so-called civilization of this western world has more to do with the dark side of our “vital statistics” than we are apt to believe.   And, so long as supposititiously sensible people will persist in leading lives that keep every nerve in their bodies in constant tension, just so long shall we need such institutions as the Adams Nervine Asylum at Jamaica Plain.

No woman who has enjoyed the privileges and benefits and beauties of this house of healing but has blessed the name of the late Seth Adams of Newton, to whom it owes its existence.  

The will of its founder provided that it should be “for the benefit of the indigent, debilitated nervous people who are not insane, inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as may be in need of the benefits of a curative institution”; but its charter authorizes it also to “receive and care for persons not indigent, who may otherwise be suitable for treatment in the institution, on payment of reasonable compensation for such treatment, the same to be determined by its managers.”

Incorporated in 1877 and first opened for patients in 1880, the asylum owns real and personal estate assessed at upwards of $600,000.  Situated on Centre Street, in the neighborhood of Bussy Park and the Arnold Arboretum, its beautiful group of buildings, crowning the summit of a well-wooded slope, presents one of the most attractive pictures of this most picturesque locality.  There are three main buildings, the hospital or asylum proper, the doctor’s residence and the nurses’ college, the latter connected by a covered way with the asylum.  Then there are barns, stables, boiler-houses, etc., etc., altogether

Quite a Little Settlement

A well-kept carriage-drive winds in and out among the giant evergreens that are among the chief beauties of the place, and brings you to a great quaint Queen Anne structure, made up partly of wood and partly of pudding stone, phenomenally gifted with gables, and breaking out all over with balconies.  A first glance gives the comforting  assurance that there is at least a balcony apiece for every patient.  Balconies of all conceivable shapes and sizes - in short, such a varied assortment of these delightful architectural excrescences as is bound to suit the most fastidious.  A generous hall, not a mere passageway, but a genuine out-and-out hall, occupies the centre of the ground floor, and out of it opens reception, drawing, dining and battery rooms.

Rich rugs scattered here and there over polished hardwood floors, graceful draperies, engravings and etchings of good pictures, and best of all, books, go to make up a cozy homelike interior  that is most attractive. In the dining-room, pictures, pretty china and a neatly-laid table prove that a meal at the Nervine Asylum is no mere vulgar “leed”.  And, indeed, everything about the place shows that the managers have a realizing sense of the soothing and healing influences of aesthetic surroundings.  Bright-faced, healthy, wholesome looking young women in nurses’ caps and aprons flit hither and yon, and patients are reading, writing, talking or strolling about, as the spirit moves them.  

There are accommodations for twenty-six patients in the main building.  A few “double up,” and in one large apartment there are four beds, but the majority of the patients enjoy the privacy of separate rooms and charming rooms they are, too, attractively, even artistically furnished, well lighted, well aired, and every one commanding a magnificent prospect.  And though the walls are adorned with some very pretty landscapes the best ones after all are outside.  For when it comes to pictures Dame Nature’s take the palm.  And the inmates of the asylum have on every hand specimens of her choicest handwork.  The views here are simply superb, - not so wild as to be exciting nor so quiet as to be monotonous, but just the proper picturesque medium.  It would be hard to find anything better calculated to calm and cure poor tired-out, overstrained nerves than sitting of a summer evening on one of the many aforementioned balconies and drinking in the sights and sounds and odors of this lovely spot.  The sweet, balsamic smell of spruce and pine and hemlock fill the air.

All the Air with Healing

Altogether, the asylum is a most delightful place and fully realizes the dream of its founder.  True, it can hardly be said that the clause of Mr. Adams’ last will and testament, which directs that “the architectural style of the building shall be plain, substantial and simple,” has been strictly adhered to.  Substantial, the building most certainly is, but it really cannot be called plain.  And if its style be simple it surely is of a very “elegant simplicity.”  But be sure the blessed man could find no fault with it as it stands!  For could he but know it, its very beauty is but another ingredient in the good work going on here and adds to the patient’s well-being just as it does to have food properly prepared and temptingly served.

That portion of the will, which enjoins that “great attention be paid to convenience, comfort, good-sized rooms and good air” has been fulfilled to the very letter.  The air is pure and sweet, and a mild, summery temperature is maintained even in the coldest weather.  All the buildings are heated by steam generated in the boiler house, and but one fire is to be found upon the entire place, and that in the kitchen.  Steam and electricity do many wonderful things and doubtless will do many more but when it comes to grilling a steak or chop they are not ‘there.’  The perfect cuisine will continue to call for a solid bed of glowing coals and nothing but actual contact with flame can bring out and preserve the ideal flavor of fish, flesh or fowl.  

Talking of electricity reminds us of the afore-mentioned battery-room.  Here the bright brass discs of a big electric battery glisten under a great glass case and hanging from the walls of the room are all sorts of queer apparatus for driving the lazy blood into new life, and giving the flesh and that it implies a gentle fillip to remind it that it is forgetting its functions.  This is where you get “points” and have your hair combed by electricity till you present the appearance of a very “fretful porcupine”.

Commodious bathrooms give ample opportunity for hot and cold bathing, which is greatly relied upon as a curative agent, as is also the massage.

Broad, easy staircases, with broad and frequent landings, each one lighted by a large window, lead from floor to floor.  There is nothing of the air of the regulation hospital or asylum.  Every door is thrown open, and there is an all-pervading atmosphere of comfort and hospitality.  It seems like a perfectly appointed elegant private residence, and the white-haired matron who moves about with such quiet, gentle dignity, the high bred chatelaine presiding over her broad domain, emphasizes this impression.

Paying Low Rates

The wisdom as well as the humanity of the managers is shown by the fact that the free patients and those of board are not confined to any one floor, but are distributed over the house as seems most desirable to doctor and matron, and no one knows how much or how little is paid by any one.

A provision of the founder’s will was that great attention be paid to diet - a proof of his wisdom.  The estate contains eighteen acres, two of which are devoted to a kitchen garden thus insuring the patients an abundance of fresh vegetables, small fruit, etc.

No family is complete without a horse, and the happy family here is in possession of three more or less noble steeds, while the carriage-house contains various vehicles, so that, whenever Old Prob permits, the patients go out driving both morning and afternoon.

Thus far, women only have been received at the asylum.  A building for men has been in contemplation from the first, but the managers do not feel that the resources of the institution will at present warrant the erection and maintenance of another building, although they hope soon to compass their desire.

During the past year 104 persons have been treated in the asylum.  The total number of applications for admission was 281.  The reasons for refusal of those denied admission were: 7, because they were males; 11, too great age; 1, infancy; 31, insanity; 26, non-resident; 18, unsuitable cases either not likely to improve or having other than nervous diseases.  Lack of room alone prevented admission of the remaining number.  This shows that the asylum needs not only a building for men, but greater accommodations for women.  Four patients can be, and usually are, accommodated in the doctor’s residence, a roomy, comfortable and handsome house which was purchased with the estate.  Here they can be made perhaps even more comfortable - but  that hardly seems possible - than in the asylum proper, and come directly and continuously under the doctor’s personal supervision.

Dr. Samuel G. Webber has been in charge since 1885.  Dr. Frank Page having up to that time filled this most responsible post.  A talk with Dr. Webber is naturally both interesting and instructive.  His experience goes to show the fallacy of the popular notion that women are “nervous” through sheer laziness - that they, so to speak, cultivate their nerves because they have nothing else to do.  Dr. Webber says he is “not sure that of all the cases treated during the year, a single one has been caused by inactivity and ennui.”

So long as there is not sufficient room for both sexes, it is natural and proper that women should have the preference, since women are greater, or rather more frequent sufferers from nervous disorders.  Not that men are exempt.  By no manner of means.  But, as a rule, they fight fate to the bitter end.  They can’t afford to give in, and so keep up till there is an utter collapse and the human machine, like the wonderful one-hoss shay goes to smash

At One Fell Swoop

The statistics of the asylum show that of those admitted, unmarried women are in a great majority.  Chiefest among the causes mentioned by the doctor as giving rise to this state of things is the fact that many of these women have worn themselves out working for and waiting upon others - daughters upon whom have devolved the weight of household cares and the nursing of invalid parents or relatives, and who have no one to fall back upon when their own strength fails.  They and  similar cases are the ones who appear in the report of the asylum as having “no occupation” - a statement calculated to lead one who doesn’t read between the lines into serious error.

Housework and teaching contribute nearly 50 percent of the victims of nervous disorders; that is to say, they are credited with that in the published table of occupations.  But this percentage is swollen to about 70 when the class last mentioned is taken into account.  Nearly 20 percent of the patients come under the head of “housewives.”  And who that has seen the lives of some New England farmers’ wives, will wonder at this?

“A man’s work is o’er at set of sun; A woman’s work is never done”, runs the old couplet, and these women verify it.  Baking, brewing, sewing, scouring, mending, milking, washing, sweeping, working late and working early, bearing babies, nurturing sick folks, that’s the recipe for the life of the average farmers’ wife, whose husband takes far more care of his cattle than of his better half, and whose “folks” would be scandalized to hear that Sairey Jane was being killed by hard work.  But Sairey Jane doesn’t go to the asylum.  She can’t spare the time.  She can’t spare the time to go anywhere except to her grave, and when she quietly slips into that it never occurs to the “mourners” to think they have buried, not to say murdered, a martyr.

Then there’s teaching!  How many who haven’t tried it realize what a wearing, nerve tearing business it is?  Teaching, steadily persisted in, is warranted to spoil the temper of an archangel, the constitution of a mule, or the nerves of a cast-iron monkey.  Small wonder that it ranks next to domestic servitude as a nerve destroyer!  The only reason that it comes second is that the teacher has got some time to herself, whereas the destroying angel of that poor unprofessional “slavey”, the domestic drudge, “has all hours for its own.”

The number of recoveries at the asylum is not large, nor can it be, considering the cases treated.  As Dr. Webber says in his report, “Many patients have been ailing for years, or have inherited a weak, nervous organization, and those among such patients whose means have been limited have been obliged to uses their strength and energy in keeping the home circle unbroken.  The strain of this upon a naturally weak, nervous system is severe, and in such cases, a partial recovery is the most that can be expected from a ‘few months’ stay at the asylum.  The relief obtained is, however, of great benefit, enabling the patient to take up her burdens again with fresh courage and renewed strength.  They do not realize the amount of strength they have gained until after returning to their accustomed labors, and many continue to improve, and subsequently regain full health.”

To Mrs. Sherwood, the matron, Dr. Webber accords the highest praise, saying that “to her wise management and counsel is in a great measure due the quiet discipline of the house which has added materially in the relief and recovery of the patients.”  The feeling of kindly sympathy and fellowship that is everywhere so apparent is doubtless also largely due to her gentle, womanly influence.  

The average stay of patients at the Asylum is a little over four months, and few stay longer than six months.  Occasionally a patient has remained for a year, but this is not considered desirable.  Dr. Webber thinks if they can be benefited at all it will be within from four to six months, and that, the good work once inaugurated, it is just as well for them to go away and give other applicants a chance.  He says, and wisely, that sick folks don’t want to stay too much among sick folks.  And yet this quiet, restful home is such a happy one, and life here so enjoyable, that patients go back reluctantly to battle again with the busy, bitter world.

The fact that heredity plays an important part in nervous disturbance has been illustrated in the cases of many of the doctor’s patients.  So, take care of your nerves, good people, not only for your own sake, but that of future generations.  Don’t run the machine quite so fast.  Slow up a little, or we shall have to turn the whole continent into a vast nerve asylum, and the chances are you wouldn’t have such a good time or good treatment as the patients do out at Jamaica Plain.

Mary Norton Bradford

This article originally appeared in the Boston Daily Globe on April 18, 1887