Many articles continue to be written about the state
hospital in Bartonville, but what do we know about Dr.
George Zeller (1858-1938), the man behind the scene?
After researching his life as chronicled in the
newspapers and reading his autobiography, I was struck by
how much Dr. Zeller believed in his vision, a vision that
was ridiculed by many people of his day. To put it simply,
Dr. Zeller believed in treating people with mental illness
in a kind and caring manner. That may not seem so
revolutionary now, but in those days, patients were locked
up in small, dark rooms with bars on the windows, shackled
with chains or handcuffs and often subjected to severe
The first state hospital built near Peoria looked
similar to a castle, massive and imposing. Unfortunately, it
was built right over an abandoned coal shaft and had to be
razed because it was structurally unsound. Also the design
of the building didn’t lend itself to the new methods of
treatment which were beginning to be accepted. Dr. Zeller
had been appointed, without pay, as the superintendent of
this first doomed hospital, and upon realizing how long it
would take to build another hospital, he volunteered in the
U. S. Army and was ordered to the Philippines during the
Spanish-American War. He was promoted to Captain and
Assistant Surgeon where the doctor battled the cholera
epidemic and after an extension of his service, he
eventually stamped it out. Upon arriving back in Peoria, the
doctor assumed his role of superintendent of the Peoria
state hospital in Bartonville once again (with pay this
time) on November 1, 1902.
One of Dr. Zeller’s first acts was to order all bars on
the windows and doors to be removed. The bars were instead
used to form an enclosure in a nearby ravine where deer,
bears and coyotes were kept. This “animal park” was enjoyed
by both patients and visitors alike. The doctor also
insisted that all doors should be kept open; no solitary
confinement for his patients. The hospital was built using
the “cottage plan” design whereby the patients would feel as
if they were in home-like surroundings. He often said people
suffering from insanity were sick and should be treated in
the same manner as other sick people. They were not
criminals and should not be kept behind bars.
Dr. Zeller also shocked the mental health authorities
by removing all mechanical restraints and banning the use of
narcotics to subdue patients. This was the first
institution in Illinois to require only eight hours of work
a day for all of its employees and it was the first to place
women workers in the male wards.
As a gentle reminder of the progress that had been
made, Dr. Zeller commissioned a sundial to be made. On this
ornament, the sculptor carved these words on the four
respective faces of its stone base: “Eight Hours Labor”,
“Non-Imprisonment”, “Non-Restraint” and “Non-Resistance”.
There were many other innovations, large and small, which
had a tremendous impact on the patients' lives. The doctor
segregated the tuberculosis patients, “colonized” its
epileptics, researched the cause of the skin disease,
pellagra, started a hair salon for women and a barber shop
for men. Dancing and music were introduced. These simple
joys that we take for granted were given back to these
Even though his innovations were scoffed at in the
beginning, the derision disappeared once his patients were
being cured. As time went by, Dr. Zeller became nationally
and internationally known, with scientists travelling from
great distances to visit the state hospital and see how the
"Zeller treatment" was being used. The doctor was always
looking for better ways to treat his patients, even
travelling to Copenhagen, Denmark, to learn about color
Dr. Zeller wasn’t always working at the state mental
hospital in Bartonville, though. Because his employment was
dependent upon the current governor at the time, his
position became precarious in 1912 when a Democrat was
elected to this office and he was an outspoken Republican.
The doctor applied for the job of state alienist (doctor who
treated mental patients) and fulfilled the obligations of
this position from the years 1913 to 1917. Then during the
years 1917-1921, Dr. Zeller organized and supervised the new
state hospital at Alton. Afterwards, he was transferred back
to the state hospital near Peoria and continued to work
there until his retirement. The doctor and his wife, Sophie
Kline Zeller (they had no children), lived on the grounds
while the doctor was superintendent and they continued to
live there after he retired.
Dr. Zeller had quite a few varied interests, including
writing historical articles and short stories. It was
because of his interest in history which prompted him to
purchase Jubilee College which he eventually turned over to
the state of Illinois.
As it stands, this article doesn't do justice to Dr.
Zeller and his outstanding accomplishments. If nothing else,
long after we forget the facts of Dr. Zeller's life, let us
remember this...he was a kind and compassionate man.
Written by Janine Crandell & published in the Jubilee
Advocate in 2005
Food being delivered to the cottages:1906
in Nov. 2006
At the end of the room is a RESTRAINING CHAIR
in which patients were strapped
and unable to move.
The UTICA CRIB to the right, was used on the
most violent patients. They were placed in this
cage-like box which is 5-6 feet long and about
2.5 feet high & wide and locked in. This
restricted movement and
contact with fellow patients.