Western State Hospital was founded in January 1825 by an Act of the General Assembly becoming the second mental health facility for the Commonwealth of Virginia. A Court of Directors was commissioned by the Governor to select and purchase "a site near the town of Staunton in Augusta County to the West of the Blue Ridge Mountains and to thereupon construct an appropriate asylum for the receipt of patients."
The original building (which is still standing and registered as a National Historical Landmark) was opened on July 24, 1828, with Mr. Samuel Woodward designated as Keeper, and his wife, Mary Woodward assigned as Matron. A visiting physician, Dr. William Boyes of Staunton, provided care for patients admitted during the early years of the hospital.
The first patient was admitted the morning of July 24, 1828. He was a teacher whose diagnosis was "hard study." A second patient was admitted that afternoon from Goochland County, Virginia, but remained only a few months at the facility before he escaped. The first woman arrived on July 25, and was admitted with a diagnosis of "Religious Excitement."
Shortly after the facility opened, it was filled with patients and the Court of Directors implemented an admissions screening process to limit admissions to only those patients "who were either dangerous to society from their violence, or those who were offensive to its moral sense by their indecency and to those cases of derangement where there is reasonable ground to hope that the afflicted may be restored."
The first director of the hospital, Dr. Francis T. Stribling, was appointed in 1840 and served until his death in 1874. Dr. Stribling, the first graduate from the University of Virginia Medical School in 1830, embraced the concept of “Moral Medicine” for Western’s patients. He was a reformer who worked closely with Dorothea Dix from 1849 to 1874 in their shared efforts to understand and treat mental health clients in humane treatment facilities. He was one of the original thirteen founders of the American Psychiatric Association. Read more
Dorothea Dix and Dr. Francis T. Stribling: An Intense Friendship - Letters: 1849-1874 by Alice Davis Wood (2008)
Dr. Joseph DeJarnette served as Director from 1905 until 1943, 38 years, which represents the longest tenure of any of the sixteen facility directors serving the facility since its opening.
The facility’s name was changed in 1894 from Western Lunatic Asylum to Western State Hospital. The facility continued to increase in size through the 1950’s and 1960’s with the opening of a second site in 1949-1950. The facility’s patient population eventually increased to above 3,000 at two sites.
Beginning with the Commonwealth’s move toward deinstitutionalization in the early 1970’s, the population declined substantially until, by the late 1970’s, it stood at approximately 1,350. Further reductions were realized over the last fifteen years as hospital programs were related to sister facilities and the communities. A more restrictive criteria for admissions and improved prescreening programs have also been implemented. Substantial improvements in psychopharmacology and community treatment modalities along with earlier intervention have also contributed to reduced census.
In 1978 the University of Virginia (UVA) expanded its affiliation with the hospital providing for joint faculty appointments and the assignment of psychiatric residents and medical students to the facility for training. This program continued to expand with particular highlights in 1985 with the appointment of Dr. Spradlin as the Facility Director at Western State. In 1990, the hospital received the first National Award from the American Psychiatric Association as the exemplary program in Collaborative Services between a public mental health facility and a university.
Western State Hospital has extensive affiliations with colleges and universities involved in all of the major professional groups including. Various staff at Western State Hospital had joint faculty appointments with a number of institutions of higher education; staff with the Department of Psychiatric Medicine interdigitate with hospital programs for the provision of services and educational supervision.