The Government Hospital for the Insane: Nutrition for Those Deemed Non Compos Mentis

government hospital for the insane, washington d.c.

The United States Office of Experiment Stations conducted a number of dietary studies at the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. The hospital was “designed primarily for the benefit of persons who have become insane while performing Government duty as soldiers and sailors,” though it also housed “all the insane of the District of Columbia.” Home to some 2,200 souls, the hospital was chosen as the site of the dietary study because its inmates were said to be “of an exceptionally good class”; the majority of them were neither hostile nor untidy. Being former military men, they were believed to possess above average in intelligence and a decent education.

According to the Secretary of Agriculture, the studies were intended to improve the diet of inmates, while at the same time discovering more cost-effective ways of feeding them. The inmates received three meals a day — at seven, twelve, and five o’clock. Hot bread was served with breakfast. Dinner (lunch) featured hearty fare and supper lighter. These meals were closely monitored, for the investigation of the Office of Experiment Stations wished to determine the nutritional value of the asylum’s food, the amount of food actually consumed, and the success of different methods of handling, cooking and serving it.

The studies differed by ward. The study conducted on the residents of the “Beech” ward, which consisted mainly of “young men who were quiet and orderly” and who “would probably recover,” was one of the more successful. Most of the men on the Beech ward worked in the laundry room, tailor shop, mattress shop, and other areas of industry within the asylum. Their relatively cooperativeness made them an ideal population for such an experiment.

The Beech ward study began on March 30, 1903 with a hearty breakfast of fried sausage and hominy “and continued for 7 days, with 21 meals. The total number of meals taken was 615.”

The meals were varied and nutritious. On the Friday following the study’s inception, the inmates of the Beech ward enjoyed a hearty supper of “beef stew, prune sauce, bread, butter, tea.” The stew was likely similar to this recipe for “a nice beef stew” from the 1901 The “Home Queen” Cook Book. Serve it with prune sauce or boiled potatoes for an economical yet hearty dinner.

A Nice Beef Stew

Take the lean of the top of the round, or of the ribs, and cut into cubes about 2 inches square, cover the meat with a coating of flour and season with pepper and salt. Slice 1 or 2 small onions and fry in the kettle in which you make your stew, with some beef fat or drippings until quite brown, then put in the meat, cover closely and place on back of stove and cook for 6 or 7 hours slowly. When ready to serve, if gravy is not thick enough, add a little flour into which a small piece of butter has been blended. Boil some carrots cut in slices lengthwise and serve with this dish, also baked potatoes — Irish or sweet — and served in their jackets. A comfortable family dinner for a cold or rainy day. Be careful to keep your stew pan covered and cook slowly.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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