Pinel Takes over the Bicêtre Asylum

Philippe PinelOn this day in 1793, “Philippe Pinel was appointed ‘physician of the infirmaries’ at the Bicêtre asylum, the public hospice for men near Paris, and the site of his later reforms in the treatment of people with mental illness (source: Warren Street’s “Today in the History of Psychology“). Pinel is widely credited with having “struck the chains” from the patients at the Bicêtre, though this oft-repeated legend has been challenged by a number of historians in recent decades. He is also often paired with the English Quaker Samuel Tuke, the founder of the York Retreat, in having co-founded the “moral treatment” of the mad. This odd pairing of a French state-appointed physician and a private English religious reformer who were unknown to each other dates to David Daniel Davis’s 1806 English (and quite eccentric) translation, of Pinel’s major work, A Treatise of Insanity. The aims and methods of the two men were, in fact, quite different from each other.

For some of the best ercent historical work on Pinel, see UCLA historian Dora Weiner’s book, Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) et la médecine de l’esprit (1999). If you don’t read French, fret not. Weiner has written a number of English-language journal articles on Pinel, and she is currently working on an English edition of her book.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

3 thoughts on “Pinel Takes over the Bicêtre Asylum

  1. Specifically it was Jean-Baptiste Pussin, an ex-patient turned asylum employee, who removed the chains from the men at the Bicêtre in 1797. Though the legend sounds heroic (and the art to go along with it: see Tony Robert-Fleury’s famous painting) the chains were replaced by straightjackets.

    For all the fun facts see Weiner’s article:
    Weiner, D.B. (1992). Philippe Pinel’s Memoir on Madness of December 11, 1794. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 6, pp. 725-732.

    Also related to this post – Pinel’s work was not only discussed in connection with Tuke but also with the work of Vincenzo Chiarugi who was also “unchaining” his patients at the same time in Italy.
    For an entertaining discussion of “who came first” with regards to Pinel and Chiarugi, see:
    Grange, Kathleen. (1963) Pinel or Chiarugi? Medical History, 7, pp. 371-380.

  2. I am really intrested, and surprise, to find in the net all this infomation about
    Vincenzo Chiarugi and his work, his collegues, their “school”.
    My graintgrand mother was Vincenzo Chiarugi´s niece, and the only one telling me about his person and his theory. . But years after her dead, When I tried to find something more apt for my thesis than the memories of the 7 years old girl I was at the time, … not even in Empoli, or in my family, could find every trace.
    Please, I reallywould like dettailes, story,books, etc. Finally, 35 years later .
    Living in México now, but travel to italy e lot. Italian, English, Spanish or french reader.

  3. What a small, small world!

    I am sure you will be most interested in reading Chiarugi’s own work, his two primary textbooks are:
    “Della pazzia in genere e in specie”
    “Saggio teorico-pratico sulle malattie cutanee sordide”
    (I was able to get copies in Italian through

    A couple of articles you may find interesting are:
    Gerard, D.L. (1997). Chiarugi and Pinel considered: Soul’s brain/person’s mind. Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, 33, 4, p. 381-403.

    Mora, G. (1959). Vincenzo Chiarugi (1759-1820) and his psychiatric reform in Florence in the late 19th century. Journal of the History of Mind and Allied Sciences, 14, p. 424-433

    Many general histories of psychiatry also discuss Chiarugi such as:
    Shorter, E. (1997). A history of psychiatry: From the era of the asylum to the age of prozac. NY: John Wiley & Sons.

    I can dig up some more references for you if you’d like. I would also be very interested in hearing about the stories that have been passed down through your family (the memories of a 7-year old girl are more interesting than you think!). Please feel free to contact me at

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