Sprawled along the banks of the Winooski River in Waterbury, The Vermont State Hospital sits empty -- a testament to the century-old efforts to provide mental health care to Vermonters. It's a story that traces the sometimes dark history of mental health care across the country. Large state-run institutions that warehoused an ever-growing population of patients.
The "Vermont State Asylum for the Insane" was built -- in large part -- to relieve chronic over-crowding of patients at the what would later become known as the Brattleboro Retreat. For an initial outlay of $100,000, the state bought 500 acres in the Waterbury area. On an August day in 1891, the first 25 male patients moved in to the newly completed south wing.
Similar state-run hospitals were popping up around the country -- all part of the progressive movement sweeping the nation. "At some point states began to assume that responsibility, so state hospitals were created -- in part -- not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to relieve communities of the cost and burden of providing humane care," said Robert Pierattini, Chair of the University of Vermont Department of Psychiatry.
The architecture of the new Vermont Asylum, with its circular wards, was state of the art. "The circular wards are a distinguishing feature of this complex," said David Schutz, the Vermont State Curator.
By early winter of the first year, the patient population had grown to more than 200 -- about half of them women -- and the partially completed structure was already over capacity. It was a problem that would plague the hospital for decades to come. Conditions at the new asylum were sometimes bleak. Patients in the early years often lived in the maze of damp, cold tunnels underneath the building. Staff didn't have it much better. Before the first winter was out, nearly half of them quit. The first superintendent didn't last much longer. Insufficient staffing, high turn-over and poor training would become another hallmark of asylum life.
By 1896, when construction of the original core of the hospital was completed, the patient population had jumped to nearly 500 -- 100 over its designed capacity. At the center was the administration building, where patients were admitted and the superintendent lived.
During the early years, methods of treating patients often followed the philosophy of whoever was in charge. "There wasn't a research standard to determine which treatment should be used. Many treatments relied on the charisma of the leadership and the beliefs of a superintendent," Pierattini said.
Dr. Eugene Stanley, a superintendent in the 1920's and 30's, was a public advocate of eugenics. The popular movement -- long before the NAZIs -- called for forced sterilization of the feeble-minded to improve genetics in the population. Stanley testified in favor of sterilization bills before the Vermont Legislature and provided the Vermont Eugenics Survey access to patient records.
Under Dr. Stanley's tenure, standard treatments for disruptive patients included restraints, colonic irrigation and hydrotherapy -- immersing patients in cold baths. "In retrospect, these were just desperate measures to try to calm someone who was very agitated," Pierattini said.
Along with treatment, Dr. Stanley put patients to work. Just down the road in Duxbury, patients that were able to, went to work at the asylum's Duxbury farm, taking care of the dairy herd, pigs and vegetables. Other patients were put to work making wicker chairs, furniture and crafts. Up until 1954, able-bodied patients accounted for two thirds of the labor at the hospital.
Over the years, dark periods like the 1918 Flu epidemic took their toll, but the fall and winter of 1927 was perhaps the bleakest. The rain started falling November 2nd and didn't let up for two days. The once placid Winooski River began to rise, overflowing it's banks and flooding the hospital grounds and tunnels. Water reached six feet in some wards and patients retreated to the attic.
Eventually the water receded. Remarkably only one patient died in the turmoil. But a long winter loomed ahead and most local food supplies had been wiped out. It would take months to repair the damage to the hospital and farms. And it wasn't to be the last flood that would test the hospital and its residents.
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