Norwich State Hospital During World War II

War causes a staffing crisis at the hospital

In December of 1941, the United States entered into World War II. This military undertaking affected every level of American society, including state hospitals. Staffing at Norwich State Hospital had always been a challenge. Even in the best of times, there were never as many attendants as there should have been. It was particularly hard to recruit male attendants, since they were usually paid less than what they could make as tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians or auto mechanics. The pool of potential attendants was drained further after the war effort began, as men joined the military service or took better-paying jobs in the defense industry. The Superintendent of Norwich State Hospital, Dr. William A. Bryan, resorted to two unusual sources to fill his many vacant attendant positions.

Conscientious objectors at Norwich State Hospital

In 1942, Dr. Bryan began to recruit conscientious objectors to the war, intending to put them to work as attendants, cafeteria workers, and even experimental subjects in research projects at the hospital. Conscientious objectors (COs) were assigned to the hospital through the Civilian Public Service (CPS), which was established by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. This law included a provision which allowed men whose beliefs did not allow them to serve in the military — even in a non-combat capacity — to perform national service under civilian direction provided by a committee of the major peace churches. As state hospitals throughout the country began experiencing the same staffing woes that were happening at Norwich, many of the COs in the CPS were assigned to these hospitals. Over the course of the war, 110 men were assigned to Norwich State Hospital by the United Brethren Service Committee. Most of them worked on the wards as attendants, although some served as clerical, agricultural, and maintenance workers. In one instance, a young physician CO was assigned to oversee the care of up to 1600 patients within weeks of his assignment at the hospital.

Conscientious objectors at other state hospitals

Throughout the United States, COs who went to work as attendants in state hospitals became alarmed at what they witnessed there. Many of them came from churches for which pacifism was a key value, such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and the United Brethren. Other COs had come to their anti-war convictions through their own personal reflection and experience. These men observed first-hand the physical abuse of patients, particularly in the back wards where the criminally insane and severely disturbed patients were kept.

Conscientious objectors did not always get along with their fellow attendants, because they would not strike patients, or even curse at them. Violence was considered by some of the regular attendants to be the only way to maintain order on the wards. They didn’t appreciate what they perceived as the COs’ failure to cooperate with standard operating procedures. They may also have bristled at the thought of their methods being judged unfavorably by these new employees. COs were often looked down upon by the communities to which they were sent because of their refusal to fight in what was widely considered a just war, during a time of intense patriotism. COs had to tread carefully in their roles, as they hoped to influence the behavior of long-time attendants without being retaliated against. They made detailed reports of what they observed on the wards and sent them to the church committees which had coordinated their service at the hospitals. These reports eventually spurred investigations into conditions at state mental hospitals after the war.

Use of patients as attendants during the war

During the war, Dr. Bryan also recruited attendants from among the patient population. My grandmother, although schizophrenic, was known to be hard-working and fairly functional, considering her mental condition. She was among the first patients to be assigned to wards as attendants. In her case, she worked in a ward for elderly and senile women. I was heartened to see how the hospital regarded her — looking beyond her disability and acknowledging the contributions she was able to make. For Grandma, this was a first step toward independence and eventual discharge from the hospital. While I can credit Dr. Bryan for this development, due to his progressive approach to hospital administration, I can’t help thinking that Grandma’s pugnacious personality also had something to do with it. She was determined to reunite with her husband and daughter, and I’m sure she never let anyone forget it.

Sources consulted

Carini, Esta, et al. The Mentally Ill in Connecticut: Changing Patterns of Care and the Evolution of Psychiatric Nursing 1636-1972. Hartford : State of Connecticut, Dept. of Mental Health, 1974. p. 178-179.

Sareyan, Alex. The Turning Point: How Men of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1994.

“Workers in CPS Unit Number 068-01” on the website, “Civilian Public Service Story,” Accessed December 31, 2017

4 thoughts on “Norwich State Hospital During World War II”

  1. I am fascinated by your blog posts and anxiously anticipate the day your book is published. This is an important story and part of the history of our nation that needs to be told.

  2. Great piece of writing, Julie as expected. Looking forward to more. Agree with the other poster. This is an important story.

  3. Great stuff, Julie. So often genealogical research is interesting only to those involved, but you have woven important history into your story that makes it interesting to all.

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