Charles B Towns Hospital was a hospital intended to help people overcome addiction from alcohol and narcotics. The hospital was located at 293 Central Park West and was founded in 1909. Its mission from the beginning had been to treat people with addiction problems, drugs and alcoholism. It started as a private hospital and in order to get treatment you had to pay a high fixed-fee which made the hospital attract only the wealthiest alcoholics and drug addicts. The hospital’s mission was to successfully and completely remove the “poison” from the patient’s system and obliterate all craving for drugs and alcohol.
The founder of the hospital, Charles B Towns, was a life insurance agent from Georgia who then moved to New York to work as a life insurance agent. There he met Dr. Alexander Lambert, Theodore Roosevelt’s personal physician who had come up with his own cure against addiction. He obtained the recipe from Towns, who claimed to have gotten in from a country doctor. Towns himself didn’t have a medical degree or knowledge so he needed Lambert for credibility. Lambert had worked for years with alcoholics at Bellevue hospital where he also experimented with his cure.
The cure was called “Belladonna” and consisted of a mixture of hallucinogens coming from different plant. The main plat was Belladonna also known as deadly nightshade. Other ingredients included henbane and dried berries of prickly ash which was supposed to help with diarrhea and intestinal cramps. The mixture was given every hour all day for about fifty hours until the patient’s face became flushed, eyes dilated and throat dry. Towns claimed to have cured thousands with his methods and that he had a ninety percent success rate.
Charles B Towns Hospital began in 1909 at 119 West 81st and in 1914 moved to 293 Central Park West. The resident staff in the hospital was composed of four physicians. They devoted their entire time to Charles B. Towns hospital and would see no patients out of it. These doctors administered the Hospital’s medical treatment and conducted its medical work. Doctors were also free to bring their own referred patients to the hospital and treat them according to their own plan of treatment while cooperating with the staff.
The patients, who usually came from wealthy backgrounds, would be accommodated in one of the most modern hospitals of the time. The patients were assured absolute privacy and all the meals were served in their room. There were regular rooms and suites, all of them equipped with personal bathrooms and telephones. Individual nursing service was provided to those patients who requested. The roof of the building was fitted in garden style and was an ideal spot for patients who wanted to rest and exercise. A whole floor of the building which overlooked Central Park was dedicate to physical therapy. Some suggest that no other hospital had more modern equipment at the time. The cost upon admission was between $200 and $350 for a four-to-five day stay. Since it was the time of Prohibition and there was a rise in alcoholism during the 1920s, the hospital focused on drying out well-to-do alcoholics. Towns claimed to treat about a thousand patients every year.
The patients would consist of clergymen, bankers, writers, actors and actresses, professionals and cab drivers. The most famous patient who would get treated at the hospital was William Griffith Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Between 1933 and 1934, he was admitted three times at Towns Hospital. On his third and last stay he showed signs of delirium tremens, rapid onset of confusions caused by withdrawal from alcohol after completing the Belladonna cure. He would start drinking again after three months.
Towns’ credibility fell with the time. He was known for stretching the truth and his claims would sound more and more extravagant. He would claim that his cure had a ninety percent success rate but based on the reasoning that a client would no longer need your services if you never heard from him again. Charles B. Towns would die in 1947 and his son Edward Towns would operate the hospital in its remaining years. His son was an infantry colonel, a Columbia graduate who practiced law until 1940.
In its recent years, the hospital’s method in treating alcoholism consisted of detoxification in combination with supportive vitamin theory. Doctors applied the theory that doses of vitamins would r
eplace the vitamins that were destroyed by the liquor. Meanwhile, the treatment for drug addicts was based on a method of rapid withdrawal. Mr. Towns would suggest that the best way for treating addicts would be by placing them in custody and teaching them a trade or vacation.
The methods didn’t find a lot of success and in 1965, after fifty years of treating alcoholics and addicts, the hospital would finally close its doors. The building is now used as a residential unit in one of the better parts of the city.
- Morris Kaplan. “‘ Drying-Out’ Hospital for Problem Drinkers Closes.” New York Times (1923-Current File) [New York, N.Y.] 1965: 114. Web.
- Markel, Howard. “An Alcoholic’s Savior: God, Belladonna or Both?” New York Times (1923-Current File) [New York, N.Y.] 2010: D5. Web.
- Charles B. Towns Hospital. “The special work of the Charles B. Towns Hospital and its ethical relations with the medical profession.” 1918.