McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA

(Image above: McLean’s first snack bar)


Nurses in class at McLean in the 1960s

While the hospital in Femina Shakes’ Hamlet is of our own creation, it is useful to pull from what examples we have at hand, and we happen to have one example very close at hand.  McLean Hospital is located in Belmont, MA, just under 7 miles from the CFA.

McLean was founded in the late 1800s and was renowned for starting the first psychiatric nursing program and is currently known for it’s treatment of young adults.

McLean was a private hospital that catered to the wealthy.  Numerous notable artists were patients of McLean, including: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Susanna Kaysen, James Taylor, Doug Holder, Ray Charles, Robert Lowell, Steven Tyler, David Foster Wallace, and John Nash.  While the kinds of patients ebbed and flowed McLean saw an influx of “young people and the general feeling was that the place had become overrun with unruly teenagers” (Stossel, 2002)

As cited above, here is an excellent article by Sage Stossel in the June 2002 issue of The Atlantic, featuring an interview with Boston Globe columnist, Alex Beam, regarding his 2002 book, Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital, which .

I have excerpted segments from the article below, but I highly recommend reading the piece in full.

Stossel’s intro to McLean:

On a wooded hill on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, lies a luxurious campus with sloping lawns, grand buildings of brick and stone, and a long, twisting drive. Though it gives the appearance of a prestigious prep school or small liberal arts college, it is in fact an institution for the mentally ill. McLean Hospital, as it is called, was founded in 1817 in accordance with a then-popular theory that advocated the removal of the mentally ill from the rigors of urban life in favor of a restful sojourn in a quiet, pastoral setting. In McLean’s heyday, doctors and patients skated, skied, rode horses, and played tennis, golf, and croquet on the hospital’s lawns. The facilities included a working farm, billiard rooms, bowling alleys, art studios, and men’s and women’s gymnasiums. McLean’s patients, who were almost without exception wealthy and aristocratic, enjoyed sumptuous rooms with fireplaces, parlors, and private bathrooms. Some extremely wealthy patients even had replicas of their own homes constructed on the hospital’s grounds. Patients included such luminaries as Frederick Law Olmsted (who designed the grounds), Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Nobel Prize-winner John Forbes Nash (currently the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind), and (some say) William James.

On the relationship between art and madness:

Stossel: What’s your sense of the relationship between madness, creativity, and McLean Hospital? Do you think there was something about the atmosphere at McLean that fostered creativity in people who previously hadn’t explored that aspect of themselves?

Beam: I don’t know. I think that’s a bit romantic. I did write a chapter about those rock musician kids, some of whom, like Livingston and Kate Taylor, began their careers, really, at McLean. So the point could be made, as you formulate it, that it was a place where creative people got some forward momentum. But I don’t really subscribe to that. Even though I know that I’ve romanticized the experience more than once in this book, the key point, sadly, is that it’s a hospital for people who are sick.