Reformer Dorothea Dix was instrumental in founding St. Elizabeths in Washington DC, as a place for “enlightened curative treatment of the insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia.” She recommended Charles H. Nichols for the position of superintendent. President Millard Fillmore appointed him to that position in 1852.
The hospital was constructed during Nichols’ tenure as superintendent. When the Civil War broke out, Congress authorized the unfinished east wing as a temporary hospital for Union soldiers, and the 60-bed West Lodge was used for sailors in the Potomac and Chesapeake Fleets. General Joseph Hooker was a patient at St. Elizabeths after the battle of Antietam, but was cared for in Dr. Nichols’ quarters.
Dr. Nichols and other male staff rode out to battlefields around the DC area, to treat wounded soldiers. Recuperating patients filled in for them when possible. Not all patients survived, and both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried on the grounds of St. Elizabeths.
Dr. Nichols remained as St. Elizabeths’ superintendent until 1877.