A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME
 

   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 floggings.
     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 "incurables".
     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 therapy.
     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



Submitted by
Steve Slaughter
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.

 

Copyright © Janine Crandell & all contributors
All rights reserved

HOME