Bernardino Álvarez, asylum bandit

The founder of the oldest psychiatric hospital in Latin America was an ex-soldier turned criminal who broke out of jail, escaped the law with the help of a prostitute, and eventually ended up destitute after spending his entire fortune caring for the mentally ill.

I’ve just discovered the amazing story of Bernardino Álvarez after reading up on the (surprisingly sparse) literature on the history of psychiatry in Latin American and particularly the Hospital de San Hipólito in Mexico City, the oldest institution on the continent.

The hospital, still in existence as the Fray Bernardino Hospital (although, apparently not in the original building), was founded in 1567 by Álvarez – a remarkable chap who became interested in caring for the mentally ill after attempting for to make amends for a life spent fighting, gambling, debauching, whoring and living off daring crime sprees.

This is from what seems to be the only English language article on his life, from a 1972 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry. It reads like a movie script:

After arriving at what is now Mexico City he was sent to the countryside and fought in several actions in the war against the chichimecas in the north of New Spain. Apparently he was a soldier without too many scruples, for a biographer says that “hate, tears and curses‚” usually followed him. He wanted a shortcut to wealth, however; he disliked discipline and had no taste for the military life.

After this campaign Álvarez returned to Mexico City, then a lively and tempting emporium. Soon he was in trouble, gambling and robbing the gambling houses, drinking heavily, rebelling against the law, joining the delinquents of the city, and eventually being chosen the leader of a small gang. “A handsome and perfidious demon”: this is the way he was described at that time. Finally he and his band were apprehended, imprisoned, and sentenced to forced labor in China. They escaped from prison, though, killing three guards in the process. Some of the band were eventually caught again and hanged but Álvarez, through the aid of a close friend, a prostitute, got arms, money, and horses. He fled to Acapulco and then by sea to Peru.

He later became a wealthy and legitimate business man and, shocked by the way the mentally ill were treated, used his money to build the first mental hospital in the New World.

He was so dedicated that he apparently ended up spending his entire fortune on his new found mission and ended up living in a meagre cell in his own hospital by the time he died.

UPDATE: Thanks to Avicenna who points out that there’s a full version of the article online here. Thanks!

Link to PubMed entry for article on Bernardino Álvarez.

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