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Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital

The Largest Mental Health Institution in Michigan

Michigan Asylum, c.1861
“View of Michigan Asylum for the Insane, Kalamazoo” Map of Kalamazoo Co., Michigan. Philadelphia: Geil & Harley, 1861. Library of Congress

Photo Gallery: Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital | Additional Photos: Kalamazoo State Hospital c.1900

Michigan Asylum for the Insane

The Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, the largest institution of its kind in Michigan, officially opened on 29 August 1859 under the direction of Dr. Edwin Van Deusen, although three women patients had been admitted prior to that time. The first male patient was admitted in 1860. First known as the Michigan Asylum for the Insane, it became the Kalamazoo State Hospital in 1911. On the first of January 1978, the name changed to the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. In July 1995, it assumed its present designation, the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, although most local residents still commonly refer to it simply as “the State Hospital.” The hospital began to grow and steadily expanded until it stretched almost a mile along Oakland Drive, which was originally known as Asylum Avenue, bounded by Howard Street on the south, and by Western Michigan University’s campus at Oliver Street on the north.

Michigan Asylum for the Insane, Male Department, Kalamazoo, 1892
Michigan Asylum for the Insane, Male Department, Kalamazoo, 1892. Local History Room

Hospital Structures

The water tower was constructed in 1895 and quickly became a landmark. It played prominently in the history of the city. In time, two working farms were opened for the care and rehabilitation of patients and were located about three miles to the north and south of the main campus. Later, a former state tuberculosis sanitorium on Blakeslee was taken over by the hospital and utilized for the treatment and care of elderly patients.

Another landmark on the main campus is the “gate cottage” situated near Oakland Drive at the entrance to the hospital grounds. The gatehouse is “carpenter gothic” in style, featuring board and batten siding, a steep roof and “gingerbread” ornamentation. The house has been furnished with Victorian furniture and serves as a museum. When first built, it was used as the porter’s residence and later housed a dozen women patients for a time.

A Thriving City

By 1959 the State Hospital had a patient load of 3,500 and 900 staff that included doctors, nurses, attendants and service personnel. It became almost a city in its own right with a power plant, water system, bakery, laundry, library, canteen, garage, cannery, general kitchen and greenhouse. For many years the hospital was one of the largest employers in Kalamazoo.

Pioneering Accomplishments

From the outset, the hospital pioneered improved medical treatment of mentally ill patients. Before the Michigan Asylum opened, it was common for the insane to be locked in attics, log pens or cellars. Others were placed in county houses, jails and strong rooms. Those considered harmless were permitted to wander about the country sleeping in straw stacks and empty buildings. The Asylum pioneered metrozol and insulin shock treatments and took advantage of the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of Michigan. In 1906, Dr. Alfred I. Noble, then superintendent, abolished all forms of mechanical restraints. This was an important step forward because it eliminated the use of cuffs, camisoles, cages and similar immobilizing devices long associated with mental hospitals.

The hospital also was a pioneer in the creation of nursing and occupational therapy programs in the persons of Linda Richards and Marion R. Spear.

Linda Richards had the honor of being the first student to graduate from nursing school in the United States. She developed an interest in psychiatric nursing and came to Kalamazoo from Massachusetts. From 1906-1909 she served as the Superintendent of Nurse Training at the State Hospital. The Linda Richards Memorial Home for Nurses was built in 1931 to serve as a dormitory for students enrolled in the nursing program. The nursing school was accredited in 1892 and operated until 1947. During its 55 years of operation, the program graduated a total of 733 nurses.

Marion R. Spear was a pioneer occupational therapist at the State Hospital and became head of occupational therapy at the hospital in 1917. The Kalamazoo School of Occupational Therapy, which she founded in 1922, was one of six such schools that were approved by the American Medical Association. She remained at the school she founded until it was moved in 1945 to Western Michigan University.

Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital c.1900
Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital water tower and chapel (right) c.1900. Courtesy, WMU Archives and Regional History Collections

Difficult Times

All was not sun and roses at the institution, however. Sometimes death reared its ugly head in a violent manner. In November of 1954, an 18-year-old male inmate with a record of sex deviation confessed to killing an attractive 21-year-old student nurse, Marilyn Kraai. Louis Smith lured the girl from her post in the main floor of the receiving hospital to the basement, where he attacked and strangled her. Fifty years earlier, a resident doctor was stabbed to death. At times patients would die also, but never was the institution accused of improper treatment or neglect in those cases. Ironically, these deaths only pointed up a chronic complaint of understaffing according to hospital officials. Because it was a state funded hospital, it was ever at the mercy and whims of state legislators and governors, who often were more concerned with budgets than necessities. Also, since the employees were union organized, the hospital often faced labor problems. But throughout it all, a high level of innovative treatment for patients was maintained under sometimes staggering odds.

Scaling Down

Increased budget cuts by the state and improved treatment methods and medication for patients led to an inevitable decline in patient population. The hospital began to shrink, dropping steadily from a high of 3,500 patients in 1954-1955. Then in 1973, new treatment measures, such as rapid screening and intensive treatment, and early release into the community for other local agencies to take over, shrank the patient population even more. In 1980, the facility started laying off 88 employees and releasing 160 patients in response to the bare bones budget provided by the state. Finally, in 2000, then-Governor John Engler’s administration decimated the state-run psychiatric hospitals in favor of community-based care at private agencies and hospitals.

Just a ghost of its former self, the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital now has turned over most of its holdings on Oakland Drive to Western Michigan University, which has developed it as a health care corridor and research facilities, as well as the home of its current School of Nursing.

No matter, the contributions to the world of mental health and treatment, to our city and to our wider community, we are forever indebted to the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital.

Written by Fred Peppel, Kalamazoo Public Library

“A History of the Kalamazoo State Hospital”

Video: 60 minutes (6 segments)

On November 5, 2007, KPL hosted a program at Kalamazoo Public Library featuring Dr. William A. Decker, who was introducing his book, Asylum for the Insane: A History of the Kalamazoo State Hospital. Dr. Decker, superintendent of the hospital from 1974 to 1987, treated a large and enthusiastic audience to a sampling of the history that is detailed in his book. Asylum for the Insane was later named to the 2009 Michigan Notable Books list.



Asylum for the Insane : a History of the Kalamazoo State Hospital

  • Decker, William A.
  • Traverse City, Mi: Arbutus Press, 2007
  • H 362.2 D2956

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Kalamazoo State Hospital

Subject File: Kalamazoo State Hospital – Buildings & Grounds


Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital Superintendents (list)

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