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Legacy of the Pennhurst Children

Updated on August 24, 2020
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis believes society should be more aware of the history of psychiatric hospitals and the stigma of mental illness.

The legacy of the Pennhurst children is one that society should never forget.

Madonna of the Stairs, by Michelangelo, Florence, Casa Buonarotti, circa 1490, is his earliest know work.
Madonna of the Stairs, by Michelangelo, Florence, Casa Buonarotti, circa 1490, is his earliest know work. | Source

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, 1934

Pennhurst State School and Hospital in 1934
Pennhurst State School and Hospital in 1934 | Source

Suffer the children

The legacy of the Pennhurst children is one that society should never forget.The children of Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania were placed there because their families were ashamed of them, could not handle them, did not know how to care for them, or in some cases the parents had no say in the matter.

Originally called Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, the hospital was built in the early 1900s.

Suffer little children

Matthew 19 KJV

13.Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.

14. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, 1504

Madonna and Child. Brügge, Belgium
Madonna and Child. Brügge, Belgium | Source

The Baby, spring of 1910 - a short fiction story

A young couple, expecting their first child, were filled with joy and love. They waited anxiously for their baby to arrive into their loving arms. It was such a happy time -- they had been blessed with good fortune and now another blessing, a child, was soon to be there for them, to fill their home with the delightful sound of a child's laugh and the pitter patter of little feet.

In the early morning hours, on a beautiful spring day, the child arrived. A baby boy that looked like a little cherub, rosy pink, with startlingly beautiful features, dark fine hair, and a perfect little body.

The first few months were such a joy for everyone with a tiny new member of the family being shown off, cuddled, sang to, and rocked to sleep. Such a good baby he was, so quiet and never fussed too much. A delightful baby who rarely cried and lay in his crib, often turning his head towards the sunny window. At night, the baby slept peacefully.

Thirty years later, the baby still slept peacefully in a crib at night and turned his head towards any bright light. The body grew, yet the mind did not. He could not speak, nor see, nor hear. Because he was never taken from the crib, never taught how to walk or make his body function, he could do nothing but lay there. The muscles of his legs never developed and he still kept them pulled up to his body as a baby does. His arms were weak, his hands in a permanent fist.

As he lay in the crib, did he remember what it was like to once have been held and loved? Did his mind wander back to the days when he was little and cuddled in his mother's arms? No one knew -- for no one ever spoke with him, played with him, or helped him. He was fed, bathed, changed. Nothing else was ever given to him.

The parents of the child did not want to care for a baby that was not normal. They could not see beyond the obvious health issues into the heart and soul of the child, nor did they once think that the child needed tender loving care and specialized training. The rest of the family members were ashamed and never spoke of "the child". A nurse was hired to care for the child and never took him out of the nursery. The child was to be kept hidden -- for to let the child be seen in society would be shameful for the wealthy and respected family.

This was not the precious baby they had so longed for. When it was discovered that the child was blind and deaf, no one wanted to care for him. The parents were ashamed, devastated, and took a doctor's advice to put the "poor thing" in an asylum where "it would get the care it needed". He was no longer a baby or a child to be loved, he was now called a "poor thing".

The family gave up the child and never spoke of him again, nor did any relatives. The child, forgotten and unloved, lay in his crib for thirty years, never again to be in the arms of anyone who loved him. When the child died from pneumonia, he was buried in the hospital cemetery. The only marker on the grave was a small rectangle flat stone with a number on it -- no name, no dates, only a number marked the place where the child was laid to rest.

~ ~ ~

Too unreal ?

Does this story sound too unreal, too fictitious, too bizarre for the twentieth century? Of course it does, to many people who think these things could never happen in America. However, it did happen to many children from families of all walks of life. Hospitals for the mentally ill, like Pennhurst State School and Hospital and many others, had children locked within their walls for years because nobody wanted to bother caring for them or helping them. It was much easier to simply "put them away" and forget about them.

There are kind, caring people who work hard to bring back some sense of dignity to those who lie in unmarked grave yards of old and abandoned mental hospitals. They do heavy research, search and search files and paperwork, until they can identify a person who was buried and forgotten. New markers with names and dates are placed on the graves of forgotten souls. This is an honorable and much appreciated task many people have taken on. Old cemeteries are cleaned up, weeded, new plants put in, and a respect for the departed is restored.

Has society and the medical profession learned anything from these forgotten and unloved children? Is there a legacy left to us by these children of the past who suffered and knew no love?

Guardian angel, by Pietro da Cortona, 1656

Guardian angel, by Pietro da Cortona, 1656
Guardian angel, by Pietro da Cortona, 1656 | Source


Yes, there is a legacy -- a legacy so profound that it should awaken the deepest love in even a cold heart. From the tortured minds and souls of those forgotten children whose families were ashamed of, came the legacy of how important love is. A study conducted on infant monkeys and led by Kim Bard of the University of Portsmouth in England, has greatly helped in knowing that love is crucial for the psychological and mental health of a child.

There is also the legacy left to the medical profession, which has improved dramatically since those cold dark days of shunning mental illness. There have been astounding and empathetical giant steps forward in the psychiatric, therapeutic and medical fields. The all too common cases of clinical depression are now looked deeper into and treated properly. Physical deformities are no longer considered something untreatable or shunned. The sorrow and pain of irreversible cases such as blindness and deafness can be overcome with proper training and loving care.

A child is no longer "put away" for even the most simple things, such as a speech impediment, as was done in the distant past. People who were born blind, deaf or physically impaired now have the opportunity to live a rich, full life.

Sleepy Baby by Mary Cassatt, 1910

Sleepy Baby, painting by Mary Cassatt, 1910
Sleepy Baby, painting by Mary Cassatt, 1910 | Source


Love is a basic yet profoundly important need for not just babies and children, but everyone. The ability to know love, receive and give love, is of the utmost importance to greater mental, physical and emotional well-being.

Exercise caution in viewing the following video

Warning: the following video is not easy to watch and is not for the very sensitive. In a study done by Rene Spitz in 1952, the film shows the effect on babies deprived of love and attention.

Psychological studies

Other studies, done on monkeys, were conducted to understand the psychogical damage of deprivation of loving care, such as was done by Harry Frederick Harlow (October 31, 1905 - December 6, 1981), an American psychologist.

Bill Baldini's 1968 documentary: Suffer The Little Children, Pennhurst State Hospital

Note from author ~

Knowledge and awareness is the first step in helping children with psychological impairment. It is one of my goals to bring more awareness of the subject matter to society. Laurel Lemke of Grave Concerns Association in Lakewood Washington, is a good friend of mine who has helped me to become involved in the concerns of the stigma of mental illness and the importance of restoring dignity to the lost souls of psychiatric hospitals in the past.

Thank you for reading my article. Your opinions are important to me and let me know your interests. This helps me to offer more of your favorite subjects to read about. Your time and interest are very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you in the comments section below.

I write on several different subjects, all evergreen articles. You can read more about me and see more articles I wrote by clicking on my name by the small picture of me at the top right of this page.

Blessings and may you always walk in peace and harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.

Phyllis Doyle Burns - Lantern Carrier, Spiritual Mentor
~ ~ ~ ~

© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Eddy. Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate it much.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      What a read ;brilliant and thank you for sharing Phyllis. Here's to so many more for us both to share on here.


    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Millionaire Tips. There were many such institutes in the past with the same type of history. The court cases that resulted from the investigation at Pennhurst opened up all the issues of the way psychiatric hospitals were run and tremendous changes were made with the welfare of patients in mind.

      Thank you for the visit and comment, I appreciate it.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      7 years ago from USA

      I hadn't heard of Pennurst specifically, but I have heard about the horrible treatment in institutions. Terrible.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Frank, this story is all too common when it comes to the way mental patients were treated in the distant past and is a lingering sorrow of tragedies till every last grave site has a new marker that gives back the identity of the lost soul that was forgotten. I understand in a small way how devastating it was to Bill Baldini and why he collapsed from stress and exhaustion before he could finish his documentary on Pennhurst. Every time I do more research and writing on the history of psychiatric hospitals of the past, I have to take a lot of breaks and probably go through a few gallons of coffee before I finish -- yet it is a task I have volunteered to help with and I take the commitment seriously.

      Thank you for your visit and comment -- I truly appreciate it.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      7 years ago from Shelton

      wow this shook me to the bones.. phyllis I never heard of this story

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, peachpurple. I appreciate your visit and comment.

    • peachpurple profile image


      7 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      interesting story. Never heard of it but glad to have read yr post

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi MsLizzy. Thanks for stopping by. Actually, there is a Halloween attraction at Pennhurst called the "Insane Asylum" where people line up, excited to get in there and go ghost hunting. It is really a highly mis-represented spoof that turns the suffering of the real patients into a thrill-seeking evening. If one went into the buildings of Pennhurst at another time when it is quiet and all the horrid props are not there, I am sure there are some lingering lost souls to be found and heard. Thanks again for the visit, the votes and sharing, I so appreciate it.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting and well-done hub. This is such a sad and shameful legacy in our country; thank goodness we've made strides, though we've yet to come far enough. There still exists too much stigma, and children with disabilities are still too often targeted by bullies and treated insensitively.

      This name is very similar to a location familiar to any who watch paranormal shows--those folks have often been to Eastern State Penitentiary, a very different institution, with an equally dark past for other reasons.

      I'm sure that were they to investigate the building you've written about, they'd find just as many disembodied voices of these poor lost souls.

      Voted up, interesting and shared.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Audrey, it is outrageous the study they did on babies. There are still problems, I am sure, in the field of how to treat psychologically impaired patients, but thank goodness a lot of theories and treatments of the past have been eliminated. That study on deprivation of love with infants is rather like a horror movie. Thank you for your visit and comment.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      7 years ago from California

      I have worked with children who were deprived of touch and basic needs in early infancy--it is such a tough road for them--this touched me on so many levels--those infants lack works for their pain--and on some level, that pain never goes away for them---

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Sheila. Yes, you and Jodah are so right. It is very disturbing the way children with physical or mental impairments were treated in the past. I think it is bad enough that experiments were conducted on infant monkeys -- but, to do that with human babies was a horrid thing. That is so inhumane, diabolical actually. I cried when I watched the video and really hesitated to use it, yet I feel that even today there is a need for more awareness of mental illness, how to treat it, and to know the power of love. Thank you, Sheila, for your visit and comment.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I agree with Jodah. The information is very disturbing, but people need to be aware of these types of things. I'm sure there are still places similar to the ones you mentioned yet we never hear about them.

      Abandoning a child is bad enough. But it sickens me to know there were doctors who, instead of giving those babies the love and attention they needed, they were intentionally left alone in order for the doctors to conduct research. It would have been a much kinder and gentler study to give those babies love and interact with them and finally see what they should've been.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you word55, it is good to hear from you. It is not easy to research and write about this subject matter, but I feel it is one of my tasks in life. I appreciate your visit and comment. Take care.

    • word55 profile image

      Al Wordlaw 

      7 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for sharing this information. I wonder how much of this catastrophe exist today? Keep up the good research and work. You deserve a vote up!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Jodah, thank you for the visit and comment. Yes, it is a disturbing story to read. After the 1968 documentary led by Bill Baldini, further investigations were made, lawsuits were filed and Pennhurst was closed not long after that. Most of the patients were transferred to better facilities, some were released and assisted to live a normal life. Today, there are still some stigmas about mental illness. Awareness and the knowledge that love can heal is so needed. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      7 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This hub is so disturbing but the story needed to be told. I'm glad conditions and treatment have improved but there is still a lot to be done. Well researched and written. Voted up.


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