Construction of the new Department of Mental Health (DMH) hospital in Worcester is near completion and on schedule to open next year. While the new facility has great significance for the future of mental health treatment throughout the Commonwealth, the grounds and building of the previous Worcester State Hospital (WSH) are rich with history of the Department and reflect how psychiatric care in Massachusetts has evolved over the centuries. Many people may not know that Worcester State Hospital, built in 1833, was the country’s first public psychiatric hospital and served as the model many states soon followed.
The spark for excavating the artifacts of WSH began with the love of history. When plans for the new hospital were finalized several years ago, a group of hospital and DMH staff, consumers, hospital board members and other stakeholders who are passionate about history and the historic nature of Massachusetts hospitals got together and began the work of collecting, archiving and cataloguing the innumerable historic artifacts of WSH and the Department’s other campuses. This project has evolved over the past several years and reflects current efforts to preserve the legacy of DMH and the history of psychiatric care in the Commonwealth. Plans are developing for many of these artifacts and the story they tell to be on display in the new hospital when it opens next year. In the meantime, DMH will be able to do a “dry run” of what this display might look like.
When Dennis Rice, executive director of Alternatives, a DMH service provider, proposed the idea to mount an historic exhibit of Worcester State Hospital at Alternatives’ Aldrich Heritage Gallery in Whitinsville, we jumped at the opportunity. Our band of dedicated DMH history sleuths have uncovered some fascinating artifacts, photos and documents in their travels through our buildings, many of which are now catalogued and safely stored. On Friday, May 20, I along with Dennis will host the opening reception of “Remembering the Past, Forging a New Future: A Historic Retrospective of Worcester State Hospital” from 3 to 7 p.m. at the gallery. The retrospective will be on display through July 29 (The gallery is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.).