Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: A Judge's Ruling

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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A move toward the humane treatment of the mentally ill in Alabama began in 1861 when Dr. Peter Bryce established the Alabama Insane Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The institution would later be named Bryce Hospital in honor of its founder. The plight of the mentally ill before that had been relegated to care at home, sometimes locked away in an attic or cellar, or if they were indigent, they wound up in the county poorhouse. Social reformer Dorothea Dix had campaigned for the establishment of institutions where the mentally ill could receive humane treatment and had visited Alabama to appeal to the state legislature to establish such an institution.

At a time when little was known about treatment of the mentally ill, Dr. Bryce seems to have been at the forefront of medical thought. “He firmly believed in the following four methods of treatment: (1) Early treatment (2) Tender loving care (3) Occupational therapy, and (4) Non-restraint.” (Tarwater, p. 10) By the early 20th century, the hospital was becoming overcrowded, making it necessary to establish a second hospital (Searcy Hospital in Mount Vernon) for the mentally ill.  

In 1908, Dr. W.D. Partlow became administrator for both facilities and recognized the need for a separate institution for the treatment of people with mental retardation. In 1923 he opened “The Alabama Home for Mental Deficients,” which was later renamed Partlow State School and Hospital.  There had previously been no public provision for people with mental retardation and the institution was completely filled within two months of its opening, many of it residents coming from poor houses and orphanages. With room to accommodate only 160 people, Partlow State School and Hospital immediately faced what happened with many similar institutions across the South: being overcrowded and underfunded. (Larson, p. 90)  

In an after dinner address at The Newcomen Society of North America, delivered in 1964 in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. James S. Tarwater painted a rosy picture of the treatment offered at Partlow State School and at Bryce Hospital. He detailed modern advancements and improvements in treatment, proclaiming that Dr. Bryce’s basic methods of early treatment, tender loving care, occupational therapy, and non-restraint were still the cornerstone for patient care.  After dinner speeches, like ribbon-cuttings, are designed to put the intended subject in the most favorable light. No doubt many were impressed by the picture of how patients with mental illness and mental retardation were being treated in Alabama.

An Insider's View

At the time Dr. Tarwater's speech was delivered, however, my friend Dorothy Burdette had been at Partlow State School and Hospital for 23 years.  Her recollections as a resident on the inside the institution are quite different from those told by the good doctor to the dinner guests that evening.  Dorothy, as you may recall, told of being taken before a judge in Sylacauga who issued the ruling that she be placed at Partlow State School. She was ten years old at the time. Here is how she recalls her admission to Partlow:

"It was in 1941 [the day I went to Partlow], and it was an awful day. We got up at 6:00 that morning. My legal guardian, she bathed me and dressed me and everything. We started out, got as far as Montgomery or somewhere, then the judge from Welfare took over. And he took me down there.  I thought sure they had a shopping mall down there and when I got there, we couldn’t even go off the premises or nothing.

"When I first got there they gave me a typhoid shot. I went to the main girl’s building for two or three nights, then they moved me to the #3 building where the “high type” girls was at, and I didn’t like it much over there either. Then they moved me back to the other building because I was still pretty young and little. I remember one girl said I looked like a walking Shirley Temple doll – she said I was the prettiest little girl she ever saw. I stayed there about two or three months and then they moved me back to the main building – that was where I grew up. 

"At the Girls #2 building was where the lower-type people were. They had a drug room there where they always kept medicine and they made this old toothpaste out of soda and something-or-other. They had them old wooden toothbrushes. We had to brush our teeth with that stuff and it tasted horrible. They had an old wooden toothbrush board in the bathroom. One time a girl got on to me about laughing at something, and she made me mad, and I slapped her and I slapped her harder than I meant to and her head went up agin that toothbrush board and it fell and all the tooth brushes went in the floor. The attendant opened the door and she told her she couldn’t mess with me that I’d slap her crazy. I thought I was the cock of the walk.

"We all lived on one ward. We had 44 beds to the ward – them little cots – and then they put beds in there later.  I think they moved the beds in just a little while before I left from there.

"I was in B Ward in Building #2. They had an A ward, a B ward, a C, D, and E ward. I stayed down on 1 and 2 East a long time. 1 East was really a little girls’ ward.  And the big girls was on one side and the little girls on the other. 

"Then they had these cross halls in the # 2 Building. These were little rooms with slats and one window. When somebody would act out or misbehave, even the higher types, they would put then there and put them in an old cover-all dress and lock them in their rooms.

"In the lower-type building, it was horrible the way some of them were treated. Some of the attendants would tie them down to their beds and beat them – those were the ones that were badly retarded. Some of the higher-type that they had over there to help out would mistreat them too. I thank God I never did. I always tried to be kind to them. I won’t have to face that judgment before God for mistreating them.

"They had a little boys building where they put the lower-type boys, and then they had a building called 10 East with the girls that were crippled or handicapped, or something like that where they couldn’t do for themselves, and they put them down there. And the same with the #2 East Building. They had little cross halls, and they would put some of them in there. The ones that didn’t know any better would go the bathroom in the floor and wipe it all over the walls.

"They also had a C building where all the colored folks lived, then later they integrated.
[Toward the end, before I left Partlow] I went to Cottage Nine and stayed there about three months then they moved me to Thomasville.

"I stayed there at Partlow 32 years before I ever got out."

*    *    *    *    

Next week we will learn about the influence of eugenics and hear more from Dorothy about the daily routine at Partlow State School.



  • Larson, Edward (1996). Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South, Johns Hopkins University Press 
  • Tarwater, James (1964). The Alabama State Hospitals and the Partlow State School and Hospital, Newcomen Society in North America 

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