In the 140-plus years that the Austin State Hospital has been serving patients, its work has been accompanied by documents of every sort. From medical records for admission, treatment and medication to budget, personnel and construction documents — these records are a window into the history of the hospital and mental health care in Texas.
Some of the older records are deteriorating from age and environmental damage, but the Austin State Hospital Archives Project aims to change that.
In late 2021, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health awarded $260,000 to The University of Texas at Austin to work with the hospital on the project, which will include identifying, categorizing and preserving the records and making them accessible for researchers and the public. The preservation effort is especially important as HHSC and the Dell Medical School work to build a 240-bed replacement facility for the campus.
"As we move into a new and modern hospital, we want to be able save and share the history of Texans whose lives and histories are intertwined with the Austin State Hospital," said ASH Superintendent Stacey Thompson.
Elizabeth Stauber, the Hogg Foundation's archivist and records manager, serves on the ASH Historic Preservation Committee. Stauber echoed that the hospital's renovation and construction work has made records preservation a top priority.
"This preservation project is building a bridge between the past and recognizing how our institutions handle care and recovery today," Stauber said.
King Davis, Ph.D., former executive director of the Hogg Foundation and a research professor at the UT Austin School of Information, will lead the project, assisted by graduate students and professors.
Many of the documents are in good enough condition to be copied digitally, ensuring future access to the records, which help tell the story of the evolution of the state hospital system and the development and evolution of psychiatric care.
ASH, which opened in 1861 as the State Lunatic Asylum, was the first hospital of its kind to be built west of the Mississippi River, and is the oldest hospital in Texas for the care and treatment of people with mental illness.
The documents will be made available to families and the public by request, in compliance with state and federal privacy laws. ASH and HHSC are working on specific regulations that will protect the privacy of both current and past patients.