Way Back When: Public health in 19th-century Westport

Westport Historical Society

In the late 19th-century the nation was in the throes of a dizzying era of invention, technology and wealth.

Robber baron industrialists made fortunes on new technologies from the telephone to electricity to even bigger manufacturing concerns. Bucolic waterfront towns like Westport, just a stone’s throw from Manhattan, presented a unique opportunity for these captains of industry to build country estates where they could rest and recreate.

These beautiful surrounds also offered an ideal environment for those who found themselves in need of cures for what ailed them — in the form of pastoral convalescing hospitals.

These institutions began in the early 19th century but came into their own during the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s by offering affluent individuals private, luxury treatments for illnesses from tuberculosis to “nervous” and other psychiatric disorders.

Westport had two such hospitals: The Westport Sanitarium and Dr. McFarland’s Sanitarium.

The Westport Sanitarium opened in 1891 but the estate was formerly owned by state Sen. Richard Henry Winslow. Westport Sanitarium accepted patients up until the late 1960s when it was bought by Dr. Walter Langendolf founder of Evyan Perfumes. The hospital was torn down in the 1970s along with the mansion house, part of the original Winslow estate. Today it is known as the Winslow “dog park” owned by the town of Westport.

The other sanitarium in Westport went by the names of Dr. McFarland’s Sanitarium, or in its later years Hall-Brooke Sanitarium. This sanitarium began accepting patients as a private institution in 1898 and today stands as a level 2 trauma center for St. Vincent Hospital.

Westport Historical Society’s exhibit “Taking The Cure” will open Aug. 15 and explores Westport’s mental health institutions as part in a larger social movement to address issues of mental health.

For more information visit westporthistory.org. The Westport Historical Society has been a cultural and educational organization dedicated to preserving, presenting and celebrating the history of Westport since its founding in 1889.