These photos from Pilgrim State Hospital in the late 1930s blended clear-eyed reporting with an almost palpable compassion.
The black and white photographs were taken by the LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt photographer, one of the most famous in the 1900s, at the New York hospital in 1938. But what is perhaps most unsettling about the images is how terribly familiar they look, even today, three-quarters of a century after they were shot.
“Continuous-flow bath is the best method for calming excited mental cases. With their bodies greased, the patients can remain in the baths for hours, gradually fall asleep.“:
The treatment of mental illness has undergone increasing attention and care over the past few decades, which was almost always repressive or destructive, as in the case of lobotomy. The images of this New York hospital would not have been very different if taken in Berlin, Paris or in Italy, where there were several psychiatric hospitals (like Granzette, Colorno or Vercelli), all closed after the Basaglia Law of 1978, as everywhere one often tried to solve the problem of mental illness in a harsh and violent way.
“Pilgrim State Hospital, Brentwood, NY, 1938. Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures.”:
Witnesses and victims of the facts were the sick, who saw themselves offered any kind of care including straitjackets, cold baths and others much more terrible as electroshock or, a few years later, the lobotomy.
The treatment of mental illness in all its confounding varieties and degrees, has come a long, long way since the 1930s, and in most countries is now immeasurably more humane, comprehensive and discerning than the brutal approaches of even a few decades ago.
Advancements in psychiatric medications alone have helped countless people lead fuller lives than they might have without drugs.
Pilgrim State Hospital, Brentwood, NY, 1938:
The magazine LIFE, in its introduction about the Pilgrim State article, says:
“The day of birth for every human being is the start of a lifelong battle to adapt himself to an ever-changing environment. He is usually victorious and adjusts himself without pain. However, in one case out of 20 he does not adjust himself. In U.S. hospitals, behind walls like [those] shown here, are currently 500,000 men, women and children whose minds have broken in the conflict of life. About the same number, or more, who have lost their equilibrium, are at large. Their doctors say they have mental diseases. Their lawyers call them insane.Mentally balanced people shun and fear the insane. The general public refuses to face the terrific problem of what should be done for them. Today, though their condition has been much improved, they are still the most neglected, unfortunate group in the world. [This photo essay features] pictures showing the dark world of the insane and what scientists are doing to lead them back to the light of reason.”
“Dementia praecox exiles the young to a world of their own. Manic-depressive gazes continuously through barred window.”: