Norwich State Hospital Under Investigation

Postcard, Norwich State Hospital, ca. 1936
Postcard, Norwich State Hospital, ca. 1936

In 1939, the Connecticut state legislature discussed the formation of a commission to investigate the care of disabled people in Connecticut. During the debate over the bill, State Senator Joseph B. Downes leveled serious charges against Norwich State Hospital: food and clothing for the patients were inadequate, the doctors were incompetent, and there were not enough nurses or attendants to handle the number of patients in the hospital. Conditions at Norwich State Hospital, in his words, “stink to high heaven.”

This was the kind of information about the hospital that I always dreaded finding while I researched my family history. I wondered how such neglect would have affected Grandma, who was a patient at that time. As much as I wanted to know what really happened to her and to my other ancestors when they were patients in the asylum, I always hoped to discover that they had not been mistreated. My great-grandmother and her sister died at Norwich State Hospital, but both Grandma and her sister had been released. Surely, I thought, there must have been some benefit to the hospital if they managed to get discharged.

In June of 1939, a bill was passed by the State Legislature creating a Commission on the Treatment and Care of People Afflicted with Physical or Mental Disabilities. Headed by Dr. Creighton Barker, it was commonly referred to as the Barker Commission. The first institution it investigated was Norwich State Hospital. I found a copy of the final report of the Barker Commission in the Connecticut State Library, as well as a rebuttal put together by the Board of Trustees of Norwich State Hospital. After reading both, I came to the conclusion that the Barker Commission’s investigation may have been, in part, politically motivated. One of the members of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Edward J. Brophy, was a physician who was frustrated that his suggestions to modernize the treatment of patients were ignored by other Board members and the Superintendent, Dr. Chester Waterman. Dissatisfied with the way the hospital was being run, Dr. Brophy resigned from the Board. Afterward he may have contacted Senator Downes, who took his grievances to the floor of the state legislature.

Although I sniffed the scent of politics in the investigation’s report, I am not saying that an investigation of some kind wasn’t warranted. However, overcrowding and insufficient staffing were not unique to the Norwich State Hospital. At the time of the probe, its patient population had reached 2,904, about 18% over its rated capacity of 2,450. In comparison, the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown, with 3,149 patients, was 39% over capacity. Even the Barker Commission was forced to acknowledge that outside influences had affected overcrowding, from the Depression to a demographic shift from a rural society to an urban one. “Family life in Connecticut is no longer fixed about the hearthside, and as it has extended its limits, the presence of even a mildly psychotic relative has become an increasing burden.” The members of the Barker Commission also acknowledged the tendency of citizens to send elderly senile family members to state mental hospitals, a problem that had existed since the inception of Norwich State Hospital. “Lately 25 percent of the admissions to the Norwich State Hospital have been sixty years of age or over. Because of the age and type of so many of the admissions, the removal rate has been retarded.”

The Barker Commission was critical of the medical staff of the hospital, noting that the number of physicians was well below the minimum requirements of the American Psychiatric Association. Norwich State Hospital had one physician for every 200 patients. The hospital would have had to hire five more doctors to meet the minimum requirement of one physician for every 150 patients. The commission was also critical of the fact that only two physicians out of the fourteen on the medical staff (the Superintendent and the Clinical Director) were board-certified. The Barker Commission’s report painted a picture of an overworked medical staff with inadequate training and poor morale.

The Board of Trustees of Norwich State Hospital rebutted the points made in the Barker Commission’s report. It had repeatedly asked the legislature for the funds to hire more doctors, nurses, attendants, hydrotherapy specialists and social workers — and every request had been turned down. While preparing their response to the Barker Commission report, the members of the Board contacted the medical director of the U.S. Public Health Service’s Section on Mental Health Methods, looking for statistics on how well other state mental hospitals in the U.S. met the requirements of the American Psychiatric Association. Its director responded, “Of the 171 state mental hospitals in the United States, 5 hospitals meet the requirement with regard to physicians.” In addition, he noted that Norwich State Hospital was one of 37 state hospitals which actually met the staffing requirement regarding nurses and attendants.

My interest was piqued by the section of the Barker Commission’s report which covered medical record-keeping. After receiving the patient records for Graziella, Rose, Pauline, and Beatrice, I sometimes wondered if they were complete. Most of what I had been able to learn about the treatment of mental patients at Norwich State Hospital came from sources other than my ancestors’ records. Although Mom sometimes mentioned in passing that Grandma had undergone electroshock therapy while at Norwich State Hospital, I found no evidence of it in her patient record. After reading the Barker Commission’s report, I came to the conclusion that I had indeed received the complete patient records.

“The clinical records kept in the hospital are inadequate. The intervals between physical examinations of the patients are too long, and often indefinite. The records do not specifically show doctors’ orders or treatments carried out, nor do they contain nurses’ observations of the patient’s condition, and they often indicate an unfortunate disregard for clinical study of patients who have become unexpectedly and critically ill.”

I found this revelation more disturbing than any of the other issues raised by the Barker Commission. If the medical staff at Norwich State Hospital weren’t keeping track of treatments and patients’ responses to them, how did they know which therapies were effective? This was especially alarming to me because the Barker Commission came out during a time when the so-called “shock therapies” were getting positive attention from the administrators of state mental hospitals. Since I was already aware of the mental health profession’s propensity for adopting novel treatment methods with little more to support them than wishful thinking, it made me apprehensive about what Grandma might have endured.

Sources consulted:

“Downes Hits Conditions in Hospital; Norwich Asylum Superintendent Invites Full Probe of Chares by Democratic Senator,” Hartford Courant, June 1, 1939, pg. 1, 6.

Connecticut. Commission on the Treatment and Care of People Afflicted With Physical or Mental Disabilities. Report of the study of conditions at the Norwich State Hospital, August 15-November 15, 1939. [Hartford?] : The Commission, [1939?].

Connecticut. Norwich State Hospital. Board of Trustees. [Comment on the report of the Commission on the Treatment and Care of People Afflicted with Physical or Mental Disabilities concerning a study of the conditions at Norwich State Hospital]. [Norwich, Conn.? : Board of Trustees, Norwich State Hospital, 1939].

3 thoughts on “Norwich State Hospital Under Investigation”

  1. Wow! And terrifying! And heartbreaking! You’ve been very courageous plumbing such potentially horrifying depths. I don’t think I could be as brave as you!

  2. Very interesting. Sounds similar (although much worse) than conditions in a lot of nursing homes today.

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