by Leo Polaski
King's Park Heritage Museum Publications, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 6th 2004
The Farm Colonies is a
fascinating collection of photographs of the state mental hospitals of Long
Island over the last century. These
four hospitals, Kings Park, Pilgrim, Central Islip, and Edgewood, were most
used during the 1950s and 1960s when they cared for 37,000 mental patients at
any one time, which constituted 77% of New York City's and 37% of New York
State's demented patients. Pilgrim
State Hospital alone had a capacity for 15,000 patients at its maximum, and was
the largest psychiatric hospital in the world.
When one thinks of the state mental
hospitals of the middle of the century, images of overcrowded wards and
inhumane treatment come to mind. Movies
such as The Snake Pit and One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest have
burned into our collective consciousness a negative picture of those
psychiatric wards. Life magazine
published an important article by Albert Q. Maisel entitled "Bedlam
1946" and another influential portrayal of these hospitals was in Albert
Deutsch's 1948 Shame of the States.
The Farm Colonies presents a very different perspective, showing
the day-to-day life of these Long Island hospitals, in nine chapters, with over
250 black and white photographs. They
show the buildings and aerial views of the grounds, the wards, and some of the
treatments. However, the notable images
are of the patients and those who cared for them.
Maybe the most interesting chapter
is that on "Patient Life in the Wards," which includes pictures of
nurses dressed up as clowns and as Santa Claus, patients and staff participating
in theatrical entertainments, and a Halloween party. Also remarkable are the images in the chapter on
"Recreational Therapy," which include patients playing with a model
railroad, a woman's party in a solarium with patients dancing to music from a
crank-operated Victrola, a men's exercise class, various sporting activities,
and patients and staff putting on a musical.
The chapter on "Patient Occupations" shows patients working on
the hospital newspapers, in the greenhouses, repairing mattresses, and working
in a metal shop.
All the photographs are accompanied
by explanatory text and the book starts with a short introduction explaining
the history of the rise of the Long Island state mental hospitals. The text is fairly terse and factual, but it
should be noted that it takes a very positive view of the activities of the
hospitals. It emphatically does not
dwell on the institutionalization of patients but instead focuses on the ways
in which the hospital activities help patients to prepare for life
outside. The Farm Colonies gives
the impression that the use of large mental hospitals is a feasible way for
society to help people with serious mental illnesses.
It is generally accepted that
deinstitutionalization in the USA was a result of a desire to cut costs
combined with a belief that hospitals were not a good way to treat most people
with mental illnesses. The availability
of new medications such as Thorazine made it easier to hope that patients could
life in half-way homes or get outpatient treatment through community mental
health centers. These days it seems
very unlikely that we would ever return to the days of large state mental
hospitals, but with the large numbers of homeless mentally ill and the crisis
in care for the seriously mentally ill, one might wonder whether those
hospitals might been a comparatively positive experience for many
patients. Even though it clearly
depicts some crowded dormitories and while many would not chose to live in such
huge institutions, nevertheless The Farm Colonies may fuel reflection on
whether those old hospitals provided benefits that we now sorely miss. Highly recommended, especially for those in
New York State.
Note that this book is not currently available through
Amazon.com. You can purchase it using
PayPal through this link: http://www.lioddities.com/Store/FarmColonies/FarmColonies.htm
© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of
the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online
Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine,
psychiatry and psychology.