Saving Sheppard Pratt's history


Most people would view the completion of Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital's $90 million construction and renovation project as its big news. The grand opening of the 240,000-square-foot new hospital building is hard to top.

But those trusted with its 148-year legacy have not forgotten its roots. And, they plan to make sure others don't either.

W. Byron Forbush II, chairman of the board of trustees, is spearheading efforts to continue to document the history of the facility and to create a museum commemorating the life of its founder, Moses Sheppard, and the asylum he funded.

Almost 150 years after his death in 1857, few people outside of the industry realize the impact Sheppard had on changing the way the mentally ill are treated.

Paving the way

Bliss Forbush, a former president of the hospital, started paving the way for preserving the hospital's legacy in the 1970s.

He started down the preservation road by writing The Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in 1971; and in 1986, Gatehouse: The Evolution of the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, 1853-1986. The books eulogize Sheppard and chronicle the early history of the hospital.

"My father wrote these books because, as a Quaker historian, he worried that there was no written history of the hospital or its founder, and he wanted to be sure there would be," said Byron Forbush.

He assisted his father on the Gatehouse book, and in 2004 he wrote Seeing to the Future: The Story of Moses Sheppard and the Founding of the Sheppard Asylum.

1986 to the present

Continuing his father's legacy at the facility, Byron Forbush is working on a book starting where his father stopped, by documenting the years from 1986 to the present.

"My father before me, and I, believe in the importance of the history of this hospital," Forbush said. "I want to make sure that, like the original bequest, the story of this remarkable man inspires the lives of generations to come."

Forbush said most everyone who hears Sheppard's story finds inspiration in his compassion and generosity.

"He left $571,441.41, the largest bequest for mental health of the time, to found the Sheppard Asylum," Forbush said. "His only criteria for the bequest was that the income, not the principal, should sustain the institution. His generosity affected the lives of everyone who came here."

According to Forbush, there were few institutions that took care of the mentally ill before the 19th century. Most were ill-housed in jails, almshouses or prisons. They were shackled and chained to floors of concrete cells or cages. Sheppard was compassionate and wanted to help these downtrodden and horribly mistreated people.

"Sheppard wanted the creation of an institution where the mentally ill were treated more humanely," Forbush said. "His concept was modeled after other hospitals he visited, that had leaders with views he shared. He was greatly influenced by Dorothea Dix, who had documented horrible conditions for mentally ill patents."

According to the history written by Bliss Forbush, the original plans called for a building for males and a building for females.

Groundbreaking for the first building was May 1862, but the doors didn't open to patients until 1891.

"Because of Sheppard's desire that income, not principal, be used to finance the asylum, they had to wait for money to accrue to continue construction," said Byron Forbush. "It took 29 years to complete."

A second bequest, from Enoch Pratt, in 1896, five years after the hospital opened, of $1,631,493 allowed for a quicker completion of missing elements of the hospital. Pratt's only stipulation was that the name be changed from the Sheppard Asylum to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.

As part of the historical preservation effort, the hospital recently completed an extensive renovation of the original buildings.

Bonnie Katz, vice president of corporate business development, said the power-plant building, constructed in 1895, has been renovated to house doctors' offices. Bricks used in the original building are exposed in archways, creating a bond between the old asylum and the new hospital.

Three-room museum

Byron Forbush is also spearheading the creation of the three-room museum.

"We have a wonderful collection of artifacts. We'll open the museum in the original building some time in the winter months of early 2006," said Lindsay Thompson, project liaison. "We want to create a walking tour so schools can bring children for field trips."

Forbush said the artifacts to be exhibited in the museum fall into three categories - personal items, paper artifacts and medical instruments owned by the hospital.

The personal items include most of the furniture Sheppard had in his house, including his bed and armoire; about half of his 800-volume personal library; a scale; bricks; a fire alarm; personal items from the store where he clerked; and photographs.

Medical instruments are locked in cabinets and displayed for public viewing in the original buildings.

Unique item

According to Forbush, one of the unique items in the collection is a cane-backed settee from Liberia, given to Sheppard by Samuel McGill. Sheppard put McGill through medical school.

The remaining artifacts, the paper items, include rare items, and Forbush and Thompson realized the importance of protecting them.

"We have original architect's drawings done by Charles Vaux, who designed the hospital," Forbush said. "These are very rare. Some of them are framed and placed throughout the building. We don't have as much as we'd like. I wish we had a stronger collection."

Donations sought

Thompson said she has contacted the National Library of Medicine in Washington about donating some of the paper collection to the hospital.

"We feel that the paper items aren't well-protected here," Thompson said. "We want to be sure they are preserved. We have original plans of the buildings, financial records of Moses Sheppard, documenting his financial transactions, and minutes of building meetings. The museum is excited about obtaining the collection."

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