John Curwen was Medical Superintendent of the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania, now known as Harrisburg State Hospital. He personally knew the thirteen founders of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions of the Insane (AMSAII), later known as the American Psychiatric Association. He served as secretary-treasurer of the Association for 34 years, from 1856 to 1890.
Curwen was born in Montgomery County, near the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Yale University in 1841, and received his medical degree in 1844 from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent several months employed at the Wills Eye Hospital, and then moved to the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital where he remained for six years as Assistant Physician to Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride was commonly acknowledged as a leader in the AMSAII, and with the administration of many local asylums. Curwen was influenced by Kirkbride’s professional mentor-ship and guidance throughout his career.
After a memorial to the Pennsylvania Legislature by Dorothea Dix in 1844, money was appropriated for the construction of the State Hospital for the Insane in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1851, Curwen was named superintendent of the new hospital, and remained in that post until 1881, when he was moved to Warren, Pennsylvania to open yet another new asylum. He stayed there until his retirement in 1900. In 1851, he published 'A Manual for Attendants in Hospitals for the Insane' which he set forth the course of the treatment of patients, plus descriptions of various types of hydrotherapy and special diets.
Curwen actively participated in medical associations including county and state medical societies, and on occasions, he represented the AMSAII at annual meetings of the American Medical Association. He was a member of the American Philosophical Association, the British Medico-Psychological Association, and a trustee of Lafayette College. He was among the first to employ women physicians when he hired Dr. Margaret Cleaves in 1879 to be in charge of the women’s division of the State Hospital for the Insane. She resigned in 1883 and Curwen hired her assistant, Dr. Jane Garver, who remained on staff until 1900. As secretary of the AMSAII, Curwen attended the annual meetings, participated in discussions and presented papers. He maintained the Association’s archives and the Proceedings of each annual meeting was summarized and published in the American Journal of Insanity. His book, 'History of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane from 1844 to 1874' summarizes each annual meeting and appendixes of the venues of annual meetings, the officers of the Association, and state asylums. He was elected vice president of the association by his peers in 1892, and president briefly in 1893.
- Curwen, John. A Manual for Attendants in Hospitals for the Insane. Philadelphia: Martien, 1851. See online edition here
- Curwen, John, comp. History of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane from 1844 to 1874 inclusive … [Harrisburg],1875.
- Curwen, John. The Original Thirteen Members of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. Warren, Pa.: Cowan, 1885.
- Curwen, John, comp. History ... from 1844-1884 inclusive, with a list of the different hospitals for the insane, and the names and dates of appointment and resignation of the medical superintendents. Warren, Pa.: Cowan, 1885. See online edition here
- Curwen, John, Charles H. Nichols, John H. Callender, and Henry M. Hurd. Memoir of Thomas S. Kirkbride. Warren, Pa.: E. Cowan & Co., 1885. See online edition here