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Bryce, Peterlocked

(05 March 1834–14 August 1892)
  • Bill Weaver

Bryce, Peter (05 March 1834–14 August 1892), psychiatrist and mental hospital superintendent, was born in Columbia, South Carolina, the son of Peter Bryce and Martha Smith. His father died before Bryce had finished preparatory school. In 1852 Bryce enrolled at the Citadel in South Carolina, from which he graduated with distinction in 1855. In 1857 he entered the medical school of the University of New York (now New York University), from which he graduated in 1859. As was common in medical schools of that era, there were no courses that prepared him for a career in mental health care. In the summer following his graduation, however, he traveled to Europe, where he toured psychiatric hospitals. After his return to the United States, he served briefly at a psychiatric hospital in Trenton, New Jersey; shortly thereafter he returned to Columbia, where he took a position as assistant physician at the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum.

Bryce became acquainted with Dorothea Dix, a leader in the reform of mental health care, who recommended him for the position of superintendent of the Alabama Insane Hospital, then being built at Tuscaloosa. Bryce formally applied for the position and, after some intense lobbying by a local politician, was selected. The Alabama legislature had specified that the superintendent be a physician, be married, and agree to live in quarters at the hospital. Although Bryce was unmarried at the time of his appointment, he married Marie Ellen Clarkson, also of Columbia, prior to assuming the position in October 1860. The newly married couple moved immediately into the hospital and lived there until Bryce’s death. They had no children, so the activities at the hospital became the focus of her attention as well as his. Shortly after Bryce’s burial on the hospital grounds, it was renamed the Bryce Hospital, the name it has now.

Bryce developed the policies and procedures by which the new institution was to be governed for the remainder of his tenure. As a state institution, the hospital was required to serve as a military hospital during the Civil War; it lacked funding during the Civil War and for decades thereafter. In the postwar years it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, and this did much to demonstrate Bryce’s exceptional management capabilities.

Like many of his contemporaries, Bryce believed that insanity was caused by the interplay of predisposing and precipitating causes and that the most effective treatment was one that minimized the presence or influence of precipitating causes while allowing the mind to heal itself. A therapy known as “moral treatment” had been devised and advocated widely as a means of minimizing antagonistic events in patients’ lives while allowing their minds to heal. Psychiatrists and mental hospital superintendents praised moral treatment and reported extraordinary successes using it. Bryce advocated it initially and continued to employ it long after its successes had been discredited and it had been discarded by most American psychiatrists.

As employed by Bryce, moral treatment included a normalized environment characterized by kind treatment, absence of restraints, and regular work by all patients who were able. During his tenure the hospital population averaged 87 percent indigents. Bryce extolled the therapeutic value of work—arguing that idle hands allowed mental patients too much time to focus on their condition—and, at the same time, he recognized its importance to the hospital’s economic survival. Whether this treatment policy was maintained because of its therapeutic successes or its economic benefits, it was unquestionably a key method by which the hospital was able to survive on its ever-decreasing state funds and its dearth of patients who could contribute financially to their own care.

Although Bryce was influenced by national professional organizations and literature, he attended national meetings infrequently. Illness prevented him from being able to serve when he was elected in 1892 as president of the Medico-Psychological Association (formerly the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, and later the American Psychiatric Association). At the time of his death in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he was at the center of a lively debate among mental hospital superintendents concerning nonrestraint of patients; many believed Bryce had advocated nonrestraint too widely. As a superintendent, he was interested in the management side of hospital care. He was also a strong advocate of advanced methods of farming, which he employed on the hospital’s farm.

As a physician and leader of one of the state’s largest institutions, he was highly respected in Alabama, serving as president of both the state medical and state historical associations. As a mental hospital superintendent whose longevity at one hospital exceeded that of most of his contemporaries, a steady advocate of moral treatment, and a persistent proponent of nonrestraint of patients, he was an important figure in both psychiatry and mental hospital management. Ironically, charges of abuse of patient labor by subsequent superintendents caused the hospital to become the focus of nationwide investigation in the 1970s that ultimately led to outright release of many patients and removal of others to less restricted environments.


Information on Bryce’s philosophy of mental illness and mental health care can be found in his annual and biennial reports located at the Bryce Hospital, in a small collection of letters located at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, and in his articles, “State Aid to Hospitals,” Transactions of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (1874): 256–76; “The Mind and How to Preserve It,” Transactions of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (1880): 243–91; “A Short Study of Some of the Phenomena of the Mind,” Transactions of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (1882): 291–316; “Report of a Clinic Held Before the State Medical Association by the Superintendent and Staff of the Alabama Insane Hospital,” Transactions of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (1887): 83–91; “Moral and Criminal Responsibility,” The Alienist and Neurologist (1888): 428–48; and “A Case of Mania Transitoria,” American Journal of Insanity 45 (1889): 442–45. Biographical information on Bryce can be found in Thomas M. Owen, “Peter Bryce,” Dictionary of Alabama Biography, vol. 3 (1921), pp. 244–45; Emmett B. Carmichael, “Peter Bryce,” The American Surgeon 26 (1960): 750–55; and Henderson M. Somerville, “In Memoriam: Peter Bryce, M.D.,” American Journal of Insanity 49 (1892): 545–54. Two tributes to Bryce are James T. Searcy, “The Annual Message of the President,” Transactions of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (1893), and Henderson M. Somerville, “Memorial of the Late Peter Bryce,” Biennial Report of the Alabama Insane Hospital (1892).