Friday, July 26, 2013

A Brief History of Down syndrome - Part 7: Abused, Neglected, Forgotten

"Euthanasia through neglect..."
– Albert Deutsch

As World War II raged on, the number of admissions to institutions continued to increase.  The amount of workers in the institutions continued to decrease however, as more men were being drafted every day for the war effort. Overcrowding quickly became the norm once again, with patients in hallways and even sharing beds. Without privacy, without comfort, without possessions, without support, patients were completely dehumanized and ready targets for abuse.  Conscientious objectors, those citizens who refused to fight in the war for ethical reasons, were readily employed by the institutions to help fill the ranks.  It is these people that began to expose the horrors of mass violence and neglect.

Patient record from Letchworth Villiage.
Photo courtesy of The DNA Learning Center
Those with disabilities were viewed as sick within a system that was highly medicalized;  each institution was run by physicians and staffed by nurses.  In the US, "state hospitals" housed the mentally ill while "state schools" held those with intellectual disabilities.  Areas within both were referred to in terms of "wards" or nursing units. "Patients" had "charts" and attended "therapy" or "programs".  People were referred to by their disabilities, thereby fostering more dependance on the medical establishment.  As feeble-mindedness was "incurable", patients under this system would require complete care as it was due to their "sickness" that people were institutionalized.  At the same time, many cities in the US continued to uphold "Ugly Laws", passed earlier in the century which made being disabled a crime.  This piece from the Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034 includes the following ordinance (that was not repealed until 1974):
"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."
"We were greatly heartened by the appearance. It resembled a
college campus." Image courtesy of the Disability History Museum
After the war, doctors continued to urge parents to place their children in institutions.  During this time, having a child or family member with a disability was seen as a burden.  This story from The Rotarian in 1945 clearly displays the thinking of the day where "A Father" outlines the reason for institutionalizing his daughter for a "hopeless brain condition", diagnosed after a stay at a children's centre:
"After two weeks of observation and a brain X ray, the doctors decided that Mary Lou had a hopeless brain condition and recommended that for our own good and the welfare of the two children we place her in an institution."
The "brain x-ray" in this case is probably referring to a common diagnostic technique of the time, Pneumoencephalography, whereby small holes were bored in the skull, the protective cerebral spinal fluid drained from around the brain and replaced with gas, usually room air, oxygen or helium.  An x-ray was then taken.  The procedure was quite painful, caused headaches, nausea, vomiting and delerium that could last months until the body naturally replaced the cerebral spinal fluid. At worst, it could cause brain damage, paralysis and death.

"A Father" felt, if Mary-Lou was kept at home, it would disrupt family life and result in public ridicule and shame;
"If we did [keep her at home], we should have to curtail normal family activities, to make the environment as simple as possible, for, as is typical in such cases, Mary Lou became frantic over the bustle of the simplest household tasks. We knew, too, that we would have to devote the major part of our time to her, leaving her little brother to develop as best he could. We felt that he already had been neglected.

Also, having witnessed the ridicule and ill treatment which residents of our home town turned on the "village half-wit" and his family, we understood what keeping her with us would mean to our family..."
Her admission to a state facility was described as quick and efficient;  the results curative.  The story concludes with "And so tragedy came into a family that barely knew the word. We think, we pray, we have faced it wisely".

Between 1946 and 1967, the number of people with disabilities that were housed in public institutions in America increased from almost 117 000 to over 193 000, a population increase that was almost double that of the general post-war "baby boom".  As time went on, those admitted were becoming younger and their disabilities more pronounced. In regards to Down syndrome in particular, there were many cases where fathers and doctors conspired to have a baby institutionalized and then told the mother that the baby had died.

Albert Deutsch, who has been described as "a crusading journalist" wrote The Shame of the States in 1948, a compilation of his serial articles (previously published in major newspapers) which exposed the conditions of Letchworth Village in New York.  At the time, Letchworth was considered to be one of the better institutions in the US, as it had taken great pains in its creation to ensure that the overcrowding and abuses that had occurred in other places would not be repeated there.

Opening in 1911, Letchworth Village was one of the first completely encapsulated "state schools".  It included its own farm, power plant and hospital.  In the words of the first superintendent, Charles S. Little;
..."buildings should not be more than two stories high, nor should they contain more than seventy inmates; that the basements should not be used for purposes other than storage; that the dormitories should be at least two hundred feet apart, with sufficient space for each to have its own playgrounds; that there should be such separation of groups that inmates of one grade could not come in contact with those of another grade; and that in locating the buildings advantage should be taken of the natural beauty of the place."

Photo of Letchworth Village, looking like a college campus.
Patients were divided into separate categories or "grades" and were kept apart:  "moron", "imbecile" and "idiot", the last deemed "untrainable" and therefore initially excluded from admittance to Letchworth as they were unable, in his eyes, "to benefit the state".  As further described by Little:
" is a home where the feeble-minded and epileptic of all ages may be given the pleasures and comforts of the ordinary home. To this end our day rooms will be provided with games, colored pictures, flowers, music, etc. Each dormitory will have its own playgrounds where base-ball, football, basket-ball, croquet, etc., may be played by the children. Swings, hammocks, and picnic grounds will be provided for in a grove. Holidays will be celebrated in an appropriate and American fashion. A birthday party will be given each month for those having birthdays that month, making a gala evening for all. Inmates and employes will join in a weekly dance. There will be Sunday services appropriate to the condition and belief of the various inmates."
Residents tended to fields and flocks of livestock, built roads, shoveled coal and made toys at Christmastime.  It may sound idyllic, but by 1921, of the 506 people listed at Letchworth, 317 were between the ages of 5 and 17, while 11 were under the age of 5.  Their labour force consisted mainly of children and visitors and staff would report shortages of food and that the patients looked ill and malnourished. 

As time went on the population at Letchworth continued to grow.   Despite this, the state refused to construct any additional buildings and by the end of 1921, 1200 patients were housed there.  By the 1950's, that number had swollen to over 4,000.  Families were abandoning their relatives there to be forgotten.  Deutsch called it "euthanasia through neglect...".

Photographer Irving Haberman did a photo series on Letchworth which further exposed the conditions of the dirty, malnourished, neglected unkempt patients.  Residents are seen huddling naked in the day rooms. Similar exposés were done on many other institutions;  Time magazine would feature Byberry Hospital, also known as the Philadelphia State Hospital, in 1946 which exhibited appalling imagery of overcrowding, abuse and severe neglect.

The Nuremburg Code was created in 1947 and gave worldwide guidelines for human trials and experimentation.  However, many children in the state schools were still the subjects of experiments, including early testing for vaccinations. Many doctors at the time argued that these rules applied only to Nazi atrocities, not American medicine.  The first polio vaccine was in fact tested at Letchworth in 1950, after much lobbying by the then superintendent, Dr. Jervis.  By that time, Letchworth was considered to be highly regarded in the medical community, despite it's shady reputation in the greater community.  The Fernald Center in Massachusetts (superintended by eugenisist Walter E. Fernald) was the site of a joint experiment between MIT, Harvard University, The Atomic Energy commission and the Quaker Oats Company that exposed male patients to radioactive isotopes between 1946-1953.   Parents were given the following notice:
Dear Parent:
In the previous years we have done some examination in connection with the nutritional department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the purposes of helping to improve the nutrition of our children and to help them in general more efficiently than before.
For the checking up of the children, we occasionally need to take some blood samples which are then analyzed. The blood samples are taken after one test meal which consists of a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium. We have asked for volunteers to give a sample of blood once a month for three months, and your son has agreed to volunteer because the boys who belong to the Science Club have many additional privileges. They get one quart of milk daily during that time, and are taken to a baseball game, to the beach and to some outside dinners and they enjoy it greatly.
I hope that you have no objection that your son is voluntarily participating in this study. The first study will start Monday, June 8th, and if you have not expressed any objections we will assume that your son may participate.
Sincerely yours,
Clemens E. Benda, M.D.
[Fernald] Clinical Director
What was not mentioned to the parents was that the calcium given to their children in the milk was radioactive.

From the mid 1950's to the early 1970's, researchers at the Willowbrook State School in New York, carried out experiments on children that were deliberately infected with Hepatitis A and then treated with gamma globulin.  In the early years of the study, patients were fed infected fecal matter.  Later they would be injected with more pure versions of the virus.  Those that investigated the abuses surmised that the children would probably have gotten Hepatitis at Willowbrook anyway due to frequent outbreaks, so that it was probably "for the best" that they got it under such scientific circumstances.  At one point the school was closed to new admissions, except for the Hepatitis program.  This led to parents agreeing to allow their children to be the subjects of experiments, just to be able to admit their child to Willowbrook.  Either way, both parents and children were given very little choice whether or not to participate in the program.

Patients at Letchworth.  Photo courtesy of Bob Paley
Between 1917 and 1967, those that died at Letchworth, Willowbrook and other facilities like them, were buried anonymously. Steel or stone numbers were their only monument, possibly due to cost or at the families wishes of privacy.  Regardless, even in death, these people were denied their basic humanity, up to and including their own name.

In 1948 in Great Britain, the National Health Service (NHS) was introduced and institutions were now nationalized and transformed into actual hospitals (yet run like schools).  Emphasis then shifted to admitting only the most disabled and those with behavioural issues. Also that year, the National Assistance Act (which replaced the "Poor Laws" of Elizabeth I) made it a duty of local authorities to  arrange assistance for those who were deaf, blind, dumb, handicapped by illness, injury, congenital deformity or suffering from a mental disorder (which included developmental delays). This included increasing access to specialized education.

Image courtesy of The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities
In 1950, another surge of advocacy took place in the United States.  Parents had begun to organize and had created the National Association of Parents and Friends of Retarded Children (which would later become The ARC).  By 1952 many US states had created legislation for educating children with intellectual disabilities (although those that were classified "moderate" to "severe" were excluded).  As the 20th century would progress, the horrors of the institutions were becoming more commonly known, yet still persisted.  Sterilization, lobotomization, tortuous experimental "treatments" and physical abuse were still the norm and the numbers of children being admitted continued to climb.  Instead of "feeble-minded" "moron" "imbecile" and "idiot" the terminology of choice was now changed to retarded, a blanket term that included any and all learning disabilities and developmental delays. ("Mongolism" would still be used to describe Down syndrome until 1965).  With the ease of one word, society was now able to dismiss an entire segment of the disability community, while callously watching their plight on the evening news.

By the 1960's even the architecture of the institutional buildings had evolved to reflect the culture of medicine, of the hospital.  Staff had separate showers, lounges and toilets.  The floors were easy to wash tile, bathrooms were stall-less and completely devoid of privacy for ease of both cleaning and supervising residents en masse.  Furniture was sparse, hard and unwelcoming.  Medical professionals wore clinical white uniforms and jackets, their names and position clearly displayed on name tags.  It was a stark contrast to the patients who wore communal clothing of various states of (dis)repair. It was very clear who was in control.

Niels Erk Bank-Mikkelsen, the director of the Danish national services for Mental Retardation visited an institution in California in the 1960's.  His report included the following "I couldn't believe my eyes. It was worse than any institution I have seen in visits to a dozen foreign countries. . . . In our country, we would not be allowed to treat cattle like that."
From "Christmas in Purgatory".  Image courtesy
of the Disability History Museum

President John F. Kennedy Jr. formed The President's Panel on Mental Retardation in 1962.  The panel was comprised mainly of medical professionals and focused on both treatment and prevention.  "Retardation" itself was seen as something to "combat".

Senator Robert Kennedy toured Willowbrook in 1965, (accompanied by a TV crew) and compared it to a "snake pit".  It's population of 6000 children was 2000 over capacity.  He described the children as "living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo".  Later he would address a joint session of the New York legislation regarding the "dehumanizing" conditions at both the Willowbrook and Rome State Schools.  During his speech, he declared that the residents of the institutions were denied both access to appropriate education and their overall civil liberties.  The following year, Willowbrook was featured again as one of the institutions in "Christmas in Purgatory" when Dr. Burton Blatt and photographer Fred Kaplan used hidden cameras to capture images of the atrocities in several institutions.  According to Dr. Blatt "there is a hell on earth and in America there is a special inferno".  Senator Kennedy received a great deal of backlash from his comments, most insinuating that non-medical personnel would be unable to classify or understand what they were witnessing in "whirlwind tours".  Dr. Blatt reacted to them thusly:
"It does not require a scientific background or a great deal of observation to determine that one has entered the "land of the living dead." It does not require too imaginative a mind or too sensitive a proboscis to realize that one has stumbled into a dung hill, regardless of how it is camouflaged..."
"Christmas in Purgatory" also gives insight into the treatment of infants and very young children in such places.  Warehoused in extremely overcrowded, spartan surroundings and devoid of stimulation including human touch, it is easy to see how the people there never stood a chance.

From "Christmas in Purgatory".  Image courtesy
of the Disability History Museum
"The infant dormitories depressed us the most. Here, cribs were placed-as in the other dormitories-side by side and head to head. Very young children, one and two years of age, were lying in cribs, without interaction with any adult, without playthings, without any apparent stimulation. In one dormitory, that had over 100 infants and was connected to 9 other dormitories that totaled 1,000 infants, we experienced a heartbreaking encounter. As we entered, we heard a muffled sound emanating from the "blind'' side of a doorway. A young child seemed to be calling, "Come. Come play with me. Touch me."
"In other day rooms, we saw groups of 20 and 30 very young children lying, rocking, sleeping, sitting- alone. Each of these rooms were without toys or adult human contact, although each had desperate looking adult attendants "standing by."
"In some of the children's dormitories we observed "nursery programs." What surprised us most was their scarcity and the primitiveness of those in operation. Therefore, we were not unprepared to see several children with severe head lacerations. We were told these were "head bangers." Head banging is another condition that some people think is inevitable when confronted with young severely mentally retarded children. We challenge this. We have reason to believe that head banging can be drastically reduced in an environment where children have other things to do. The "Special Education" we observed in the dormitories for young children was certainly not education. But, it was special. It was among the most especially frightening and depressing encounters with human beings we have ever experienced..."

This news special produced by NBC in 1968 still clearly shows subhuman living conditions in The Pennhurst State Home in Pennsylvania.

"Suffer the Little Children" by Bill Baldini
Although these reports and many like it would spark legislation that would begin the closing of the institutions, many were open and still functioning like this until the early 1980's. Despite frequent exposés in the Staten Island Advance and other area papers, the allegations of abuse at Willowbrook continued to surface.  In 1972, Geraldo Rivera, then working as an ABC News reporter, went to Willowbrook to film "Willowbrook:  The Last Disgrace".  His story, which won a Peabody Award, showcased the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions and the physical abuse of the patients by the staff.

Even with all the publicity, even with all the images, stories and coverage, the institutions, according to one doctor at Willowbrook, had only worsened since Kennedy's visit.

The classification of "retarded" and related terms would continue to affect public perception and access to care for people with intellectual disabilities well into the 21st century.  In the UK, a pamphlet published by The National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children in 1973 (eight years after the term mongolism had been changed to "Down's Syndrome"), had this to say:

"when informed by their doctor that their child is affected with mongolism and warned that it may show some mental backwardness, parents often imagine the worst and think that their child will never walk or talk.  Although a few mongol children are as handicapped as this and they can live at home when young, they will probably later need permanent hospital care..."

"... Due to their slow intellectual growth most mongols are precluded from making satisfactory progress in formal education of the type provided by Local education authorities. However they benefit from the less formal type of education which they receive at the special centres provided by the local Department of Health although these are not always yet available in the more sparsely populated areas of Britain.

In addition to the two already mentioned there is a third considerably smaller group of children with mongolism who are even less backward and devlop intellectually from a half to two thirds the rate of an average child. Many of this group can profit from formal education, particularly when given in the smaller classes with specially trained teachers in schools for the educationally subnormal"
Doctors continued to refuse lifesaving procedures (such as heart surgery) to those with Down syndrome up until 1984;  in fact there were many physicians that still classified feeding a child with an intellectual disability to be a lifesaving procedure.  Until the institutions were finally closed, hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities had been discarded by their families, segregated, abused sexually, physically and mentally, not to mention violated by sterilization and experimentation.  All with society's blessing as it was considered "the right thing to do".

We may never know the full extent of the abuse, nor of how many people with disabilities were disposed of out of hand, like so much garbage.  It would take almost to the end of the last century for the final institution to be closed.  It would take even longer for the general public to begin to understand terms such as "dignity" "rights" and "civil liberties" in relation to those with intellectual disabilities.  The term "retarded" is just now being replaced in the medical literature; it will no doubt take many more to remove it from Western vernacular.

We in society have a responsibility to ensure that these victims are not forgotten.  We also have a mandate to ensure that such atrocities never happen to another human being ever again. 

Anonymous graves at Letchfield Village.  Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

[Next time:  The rise of the parent advocate]

Applebome, Peter. "Giving Names to Souls Forgotten No Longer." The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Dec. 2007.

Buteux, Lindsay. "Letchworth: The Village of Secrets." Outlook Student Press. Outlook Student Press, 8 Nov. 2010.

Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034 (repealed 1974).

Christmas in Purgatory, Blatt and Kaplan, (Previously published by Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1966) current copyright, Human Policy Press, Center on Human Policy Syracuse University P.O. Box 35127 Syracuse, NY, 1974. 
Corcoran, David. "THIELLS JOURNAL; Graves Without Names for the Forgotten Mentally Retarded." The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Dec. 1991.

"Disability History Exhibit." Disability History Panels. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Harkins, Don. "Federal Government Publishes Confession; 1995 Report to Clinton Documents 30 Years of Radiation Experiments." The Idaho Observer [Spirit Lake, Idaho] May 1999: The Idaho Observer.

"Legend Tripping in Letchworth Village." AbandonedNYC. N.p., 5 Aug. 2012.
Little, Charles S., MD. Letchworth Village: The Newest State Institution For The Feeble-minded And Epileptic.  The Survey, 12 Mar. 1912.

Paralells in Time; A History of Developmental Disabilities, The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities, 2012.

Staff (September 10, 1965). "Excerpts From Statement by Kennedy". The New York Times.

Suffer The Little Children, Pennhurst State Home: Eugenics + Social Services - Pennsylvania. Perf. Bill Baldini. NBC10, 1968.

Slater, Catherine, MA. "A History of Mental Disability 1000AD-2000AD:From Idiocy to Intellectual Impairment Web. 22 July 2013.

The Child with Mongolism: 80 to 90 Per Cent Can Learn to Do Simple Tasks. Great Britain: National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, 1973. Print.

"We Committed Our Child." The Rotarian (1945): Disability History Museum.

"Willowbrook State School." Asylum Projects. Asylum Projects, n.d. Web.

A Brief History of Down Syndrome: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7


  1. Hard to read, but necessary. Thank you for putting this together...I will share it for others to read.

  2. Outstanding essay. Thank you so much.

  3. This is incredible. I was riveted to the last. Thank you

  4. Just read through this entire series tonight, truly excellent posts! I agree with Crystal, at times it was difficult to read some of the things in here, I kept picturing my own son and what if he had been treated this way and it broke my heart. But every one of these posts was so worth the read, I learned a lot. My favorite was part three. I loved seeing the pictures and reading about the families who treasured their children and included them in the family.

    Again excellent posts here, thanks for sharing!

  5. Very hard to read, but well worth it. Hard to believe they were treated that way!

  6. Thank you... I will be sharing widely...

  7. You should think about publishing this series - in some kind of history of medicine/nursing journal.... So interesting and so very sobering.

  8. This was so hard to read. I'm grateful our nation has come so far.

  9. Phenomenal article in a phenomenal series. Thank you for writing this.

  10. thanks for writeing this I have CP and love history have u thought about making this into a doc

  11. Thank you all for your very kind words and suggestions. I may put this series (and flesh it out more) into something in the future. Certainly food for thought.

  12. Just found your blog through my participation in your blog hop and was truly moved by your series. Of course "knowing it happened" and reading about it is different all together. If you did flesh it out, I for sure would be interested in reading it! Even purchasing it if that were the case :)

  13. This is a real and important part of our history that needs to be remembered, discussed, shared, and properly written into the official histories. This is only the starting point however. When I watch the embedded series of programs I'm reminded of the, as recent as 2012, Nightline Investigates expose regarding what goes on in US schools in regards to students with special needs, the containment, the chemical 'treatments', the deaths swept under the rug as accidents. I'm reminded of this past every time I read more of 'therapies' to not help or help to adapt to one's circumstances, but to attempt to 'fix' children to fit a perceived 'norm', for them to become more 'easily tolerated' by those who have the privilege of considering themselves 'normal'.

    This is far from over. We can't pat ourselves on the back just yet, but we can look back and make sure those left behind are at least remembered and honored, and see that nothing like this ever happens again, anywhere, or to anyone.

    I cried through most of this post and the video.

    1. The attitudes, the theories, the ableist rhetoric that spawned these horrible deeds are sadly, still alive and well. As you say, they've taken on different forms, found different niches.

      It won't be over until people realize that disability is natural and just another facet of humanity.

      It's been a while since I've written this... I still cry when I read my own words. This whole series has affected me deeply.

  14. Stunning, hard to read. I thank you for the hard work and pain put into this article. Acceptance of disability as a part of the human condition is vital. We cannot call ourselves civilized without it.


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