The Willowbrook Mental Asylum: One of history’s worst nightmares

Willowbrook State School, better known as the Willowbrook Mental Hospital, was an institute for the young and the adults with mental disabilities that ran for 40 years. However, the conditions at this ‘mental institute’ were more than abysmal. Some digging done by Geraldo Rivera, with the help of a few remarks from Robert Kennedy exposed the internal state of this understaffed, horrifying institute and made it public.

Due to this exposé, one of the institute’s most stomach-turning experiments came to light in public – the hepatitis experiment. This inhumane experiment consisted of purposefully infecting their patients without their knowledge of the hepatitis virus and then trying some cures. The asylum finally closed in 1987 after its 40-year run.

At Its Time, Willowbrook Was The Biggest State-Run Institution In Its Category In The US


Source: YouTube

Willowbrook was officially the most significant mental institution in the United States in 1969. Had the state of the institute been more civilized and hygienic, this might have meant something to be proud of.

No Mandatory Background Checks For The Staff Members before Employment, Leading To Uncontrolled Abuse


Source: YouTube

Unlike today, back when Willowbrook was open, background checks weren’t essential. This free pass into the institute meant anyone could get in – leading to physical, sexual and emotional abuse by the staff employed to take care of these patients.

Patients Were Kept In Overcrowded, Unhygienic Surroundings


Source: YouTube

Willowbrook was built for a maximum of 4,000 patients, yet it exceeded 6,000 by the 1960’s, thus making the place unbelievably constricted. With beds placed a mere 10 inches apart, there was also never sufficient toiletries (or even food, sometimes) –  oh, and people were kept in cages drenched in their waste.

Dr. Saul Krugman Deliberately Infected His Patients With Hepatitis To Experiment Potential Cures For It


Source: YouTube

Dr. Saul Krugman attempted finding a cure for hepatitis by intentionally infecting the patients with it at the Willowbrook State School, and he managed to get away with it from 1955 to 1970. He would do so by spiking their food with feces with the virus in it, but would also inject it directly to other patients – all without any consent. In spite of all this, he received an honor in 1972 and was as president of the American Pediatric Society.

Patients Constantly Perished Of Curable Causes


Source: YouTube

Most of the deaths at Willowbrook were very preventable. There were those who were intentionally infected with Hepatitis, others who merely choked on their food, measles and influenza outbreaks were a regular occurrence, and the list just keeps going on. Had the building been less cramped up and hygiene was taken care of, almost all of these deaths were very avoidable. The place was so crowded that the ratio of patients to staff was 70 to 2!

Don’t Let The ‘School’ In The Name Fool You


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willowbrook State School was intended to be a place where mentally challenged individuals would be taught and raised to utilize their potential to function. However, there barely was ever any kind of educational aspect to it, and the few times they decided to implement it they only focused on select patients and even that for a small amount of time. This together with the other federal legislation that it inspired, the deficit of education at Willowbrook led to the Education For All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975.

In 1972, Geraldo Rivera Exposed Willowbrook, Seven Years After Robert Kennedy Spoke Against Its Outrageous Conditions


Source: YouTube

Willowbrook had received quite the negative attention by the media and politicians, towards the 1970’s. It was after Robert Kennedy’s visit in 1965 when he called out the conditions at the hospital and called it a ‘snake pit.’ Seven years after that, a young reporter named Geraldo Rivera from the Eyewitness News made a small piece about the institute and exposed its horrible conditions. It aired publicly and left people revolted. Rivera continued this and did plenty of more articles on Willowbrook, even wrote a book on it.

Lawsuits Were Filed On Behalf Of The Patients At Willowbrook, making the Willowbrook Consent Decree And Review Panel


Source: YouTube

As a result of the Rivera documentary, parents and legal guardians of the patients at Willowbrook filed a class action lawsuit against them, demanding immediate action be taken to improve the conditions at the institute. The suit eventually got dismissed. However, a joint lawsuit under the civil rights laws filed by the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union managed to make it through and get their attention. This led to the Willowbrook Consent Decree, which was a legal agreement compelling the state of New York to relocate the patients to new homes and workshops in which education was priority and conditions were optimum, up to the mark and hygienic. This gave birth to the Willowbrook Review Panel, whose job was to ensure that the terms were followed.

To Avoid Such Horrors In The Future, Four Different Types Of Legislations Were Put Into Place


Source: Flickr

Some important legislations were inspired by Willowbrook to avoid such an unspeakable thing from ever occurring in the first place. First the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975, which made and supplied access to programs for the mentally disabled children, teaching them to be independent. This was followed by the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which gave access to programs for the mentally disabled children within their local schools, to avoid making them feel different or weird. Finally, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 secures the rights of institutionalized people, regardless of the reason. Together these allowed the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

Rivera’s Exposé On Willowbrook Is Available Even Now

It was a nightmare really, and surprising how they got away with it for 40 years. The parents and guardians who sent their mentally handicapped relatives to the institute, paying the staff to take care of them and help them grow, had no idea what horrors they were going to put their poor children through – from infecting them on purpose behind their backs to locking them in cages like animals. Nobody deserves such treatment, so let’s just take a moment to appreciate the fact that it’s over and we now have strong laws standing to shade us from such events occurring ever again.

About Ghada Ibrahim

Student, blogger, graphic designer and aspiring cook, Ghada enjoys writing and researching in her spare time.