'History that nobody knew about' Museum: Two nurses create displays that chronicle a century of treatment at the state psychiatric hospital in Sykesville.

January 07, 1996|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When two nurses at Springfield Hospital Center decided a year ago to create a hospital museum, they envisioned a one-room display.

Barbara Kelly and Darla Walton ended up filling an entire wing of an old Springfield admission ward with artifacts, documents and pictures that chronicle the 100-year history of the state psychiatric hospital in Sykesville.

Instruments once used to perform lobotomies are laid out on a tray, the "restraint" exhibit features old straitjackets, and a Springfield payroll ledger from 1924 shows that the hospital superintendent made $300 a month and received $83 in living expenses.

More than 400 people, including retired Springfield employees, hospital staff and patients, attended the museum's opening last Thursday. It was the first event in the hospital's yearlong celebration of its centennial.

"I think it really does tell the story of Springfield," the hospital's clinical director, Dr. Sherrill Cheeks, said of the museum. "It allows us to look at the development of the hospital and gives us a picture of where we are now."

For the past year, Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Walton have devoted their days off to assembling the exhibits.

In the early stages, the two women planned to have one room with three tables of memorabilia on display.

But the project grew in scope and size until it occupied one wing of the Hubner building, a 1913 structure that originally housed an admissions ward, operating room and laboratory.

As Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Walton explored the attics and basements of Springfield buildings, they found much more material than could be accommodated on three tables.

"There was so much history that nobody knew about," Mrs. Kelly said. "We just wanted to preserve it."

Established in 1896 on a 700-acre estate, Springfield was originally called the Second Hospital for the Insane of Maryland.

The hospital became a self-contained community, or asylum, with a working farm, a cannery and its own fire department. Patients were expected to work as part of their therapy.

In the museum, a picture from 1917 shows patients picking potatoes in a field, as hospital attendants dressed in military-style uniforms supervise them.

"In that era when severely mentally ill people needed asylum, they were sent to the country to live for a while until they got better," said Dr. Eduardo de la Cruz, a staff psychiatrist at Springfield.

Other exhibits in the museum reflect the changes over the years in the treatment of the mentally ill.

One display called "therapies" includes a bathtub with a canvas cover, which was used for hydrotherapy treatments to sedate agitated patients.

A display case holds a pair of electrodes used in electroconvulsive therapy. A state health department publication from the late 1940s describes the treatment as "a relatively new procedure that has changed the entire outlook for a great number of mental patients."

Mary Cook, who visited the museum on its opening day, lingered at the nursing display, thumbing through a yearbook of the hospital's nursing class of 1933. She graduated in 1949.

Ms. Cook, 78, who was a licensed practical nurse at Springfield for 28 years, found some familiar faces.

She enjoyed her years at Springfield, but at times the work could be dangerous, she said.

Ms. Cook remembers a patient once hit her with a shoe and broke her nose. She finished her shift with an ice pack on her face.

"That was quite an experience," she said. "But you knew they were sick, and you really couldn't do anything about it."

The incident occurred in the early 1950s, a period when Springfield housed over 3,500 patients.

In that era, Springfield and other state mental hospitals were overcrowded, understaffed facilities sometimes called "snake pits."

The museum includes this period of Springfield's history with a framed newspaper article from 1955 that describes the deplorable conditions at Maryland's psychiatric hospitals.

"This is all part of our history," Mrs. Kelly said.

Over the past 40 years, the development of anti-psychotic drugs and the emphasis on community placement for the mentally ill has drastically reduced the populations of psychiatric hospitals.

Today, Springfield has 368 patients. The average hospital stay is less than 10 days.

Dr. Jonathan Book, who was superintendent of Springfield in the mid-1980s, said the hospital's museum can serve as a reminder of the successes and failures in the care of the mentally ill.

"In the treatment of mental illness we have gone in cycles of repeating the mistakes of the past, and we have a lot to learn," Dr. Book said. "We have homeless who are mentally ill, we have the mentally ill in jails. The lot of the mentally ill is still quite poor in 1996, and this [the museum] to some degree, is a reminder of that."

The Springfield Hospital Center Museum will be open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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