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Treatment at Minnesota’s Rochester State Hospital changed along with attitudes toward mental health

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Women reading in library, Rochester State Hospital, c.1930.

Rochester State Hospital opened on January 1, 1879, as Minnesota’s second hospital for the insane. It served as part of Minnesota’s state hospital system until 1982, when changing trends in treatment for the mentally ill and lack of funding led to its closure.

Rochester State Hospital began as the Minnesota Inebriate Asylum. In 1873, the state legislature passed a law that imposed a ten-dollar annual tax on liquor dealers to fund the building of an asylum for sufferers of alcoholism, then commonly called inebriates. The state purchased 160 acres of land in Rochester in 1876, and construction of the asylum began in 1877.

Liquor dealers strongly opposed the tax and successfully lobbied against it, arguing that there was a more urgent need for another hospital for the insane. In 1878, the legislature repealed the tax and abolished the inebriate asylum. In its place, they established the Second Minnesota Hospital for the Insane to ease overcrowding at St. Peter, then the state’s only institution for the mentally ill. A portion of the new hospital was dedicated to treating chronic inebriates.

The hospital opened on January 1, 1879, with one hundred male patients transferred from St. Peter. It was built according to the Kirkbride plan, a design created by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride that set aside open stretches of land for farming, exercise, and occupational therapy. The original structure featured a central administration building with wings for patient wards stretching out behind it on either side. The first building was completed in 1880 but was expanded throughout the 1880s. In 1893, the institution changed its name to the Rochester State Hospital.

Treatment of mental illness at the hospital before the 1920s mainly involved keeping patients occupied with work and recreation, and restraining violent patients. Many patients worked on the hospital’s five-hundred-acre farm. Though physical punishment was not prescribed as a treatment, the hospital came under scrutiny in 1889 when patient Taylor Combs died at the hands of two attendants. Following this scandal, Dr. A. F. Kilbourne replaced the hospital’s first superintendent, Dr. J. E. Bowers.

Kilbourne, who served at Rochester until his death in 1935, was a firm believer in therapeutic occupation and amusement for patients as the most valuable forms of treatment. He tried to improve Rochester’s program so that it offered patients more light exposure and more interesting work. After his takeover in 1889, the hospital developed one of the first nurses’ training programs in the country. The first class graduated in 1892.

Treatment methods evolved throughout the hospital’s history. In the late 1940s, insulin and electroshock treatments were common. In the 1950s, lobotomies were used on some patients, and drug use became more extensive. The hospital’s campus continued to change as well. After World War II, there was an influx of geriatric patients. With the old Kirkbride building unable to accommodate them, a major construction program began in 1948. By 1964, newer buildings served most of the patients and the Kirkbride structures were torn down. In 1965, the City of Rochester purchased 212 acres of the hospital’s farm land and turned it into Quarry Hill Park.

By the 1960s, the hospital was known for its surgical unit. It served as a center for many other state institutions, and by 1971 was the only remaining surgical unit in the state hospital system. In the same year, it became the surgical center for the Department of Public Welfare.

In the late 1970s, as the economy declined, the treatment of mental illness moved from state institutions to community-based facilities. In 1981, the Minnesota Legislature ordered Rochester to close as a cost-saving measure, triggering a state-wide controversy. Hospital staff and community members expressed concern that the closure would traumatize patients and damage the local economy. Unlike other state hospitals, which received patients through court orders, Rochester admitted a majority of its patients voluntarily. Patient advocates feared that closing the hospital would hurt those who sought help willingly. Despite these objections, the hospital closed in June 1982.

The Federal Medical Center, a prison for inmates with medical problems, was built on the hospital’s grounds in 1984. The prison used some of the detached hospital buildings but demolished others to allow for new construction.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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