State pledges to examine patient treatment history at Crownsville Hospital

Advocates say treatment of African-American patients shouldn't be forgotten

  • The Administration Building at the long-vacant Crownsville Hospital Center.
The Administration Building at the long-vacant Crownsville… (File photo by Andre F. Chung…)
September 18, 2013|By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun

It's a piece of history that many in Maryland want to forget: an underfunded, overcrowded, state-run mental hospital where African-American patients lived in squalid conditions, were given few helpful treatments and were made the subjects of experiments — possibly against their will.

Crownsville Hospital Center was eventually integrated and became a modern mental health facility. But for decades — from its founding in 1911 to the 1960s — the now-shuttered hospital offered substandard care to poor, sick, black Marylanders, according to historians, advocates and state officials.

"The department is not proud of this history," Dr. Gayle Jordan-Randolph, deputy secretary of the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said Wednesday at a hearing in Annapolis.

"It was deplorable," she said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered state health officials Wednesday to form a working group and enlist an academic researcher to study the hospital's history.

O'Malley's directive comes as activists and advocates including the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus, which held the hearing, push the state to make sure the stories of Crownsville don't disappear.

"We certainly have an interest in particular when there's allegations of disparate treatment of African-Americans and vulnerable populations in our state," said Del. Aisha Braveboy, the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the caucus.

Members of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and others say they have no formal goal for the inquiry beyond making sure a light is shined on the poor treatment blacks received at Crownsville.

They say they hope a better accounting of the hospital's history will lead to a way of honoring the patients. Some have suggested a monument in the cemetery where thousands are buried. A group with designs on taking over the campus for nonprofit agencies has proposed a cultural center.

Susan Goering, director of the ACLU's Maryland office, told members of the caucus it's important for the state to "put together the pieces of the tragic story that has not been told."

O'Malley did not attend Wednesday's session but sent a letter in which he told advocates he shared their interest in "understanding this history."

Officials said the work group would include representatives of the NAACP, the ACLU, the state, former employees and patients, lawmakers and the Maryland State Archives.

ACLU members said they welcomed the study but said the health department might not be the appropriate agency to lead it. They want another agency or an independent investigator to take the lead. Otherwise, they said, the department is essentially researching itself.

Braveboy echoed those concerns. She said she would ask O'Malley to modify the work group plan.

The hospital in Crownsville, about eight miles north of Annapolis, opened in 1911 as the "Hospital for the Negro Insane."

Black mental patients were transferred to Crownsville from other state hospitals, and it became the only state mental health facility that housed them.

The land had been a willow farm, and patients tended the farm, grew their own food and built the first hospital buildings.

The facility remained segregated until the 1960s. It was shut down in 2004 amid budget cuts and declining patient counts.

Paul Lurz, who worked at the hospital for 40 years until it closed, has pored over documents at the Maryland State Archives to research its history.

Lurz said chronic underfunding and understaffing led to many problems. He quoted from articles published by The Baltimore Sun in the 1940s and 1950s that described deplorable conditions.

The Sun described a dirty room for small boys, who were naked and spilling food all over themselves, watched by one attendant. The newspaper noted there was no schooling for young patients, and epileptic children spent their days on a bare floor.

In 1953, The Sun reported, the sickest women were kept in "a room as forbidding as a dungeon," and there were not enough beds or toilets for the patients.

Lurz said the squalid conditions and the lack of funding and staff prevented patients — often referred to as "inmates" — from getting useful treatment.

He said his research indicates lobotomies were common in the 1940s and 1950s. He also said patients at Crownsville — as well as other state hospitals — were used as subjects in medical experiments.

Doctors drilled into patients' heads to drain the fluid from around the brain and to pump in air or helium, he said. Patients were then "somersaulted" upside-down and X-rayed.

Other times, doctors tested drugs on patients. It's not clear whether patients always agreed to the experiments, Lurz said, but some patients were given cards to buy coffee and cigarettes at the hospital canteen in exchange for participating.

"That didn't seem right to me," Lurz said.

Jordan-Randolph, the state deputy health secretary, said the hospital was "grossly underfunded."

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