Maine School for Feeble Minded

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Maine School for Feeble Minded
Established 1907
Opened 1908
Closed 1996
Current Status Closed
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location New Gloucester,ME
Peak Patient Population 1,700 in 1957
Alternate Names
  • Pownal State School
  • Pineland Hospital and Training Center
  • The Pineland Center


From 1907 when the Maine Legislature decided to establish a school for "idiotic and feeble-minded" children until 1996 when that institution closed its doors, doctors, social workers, parents, legislators and community advocates discussed and debated the nature of the problem of developmental disabilities in children and adults and the best way for the state to care for those individuals. The enabling legislation passed in 1907 specified that the residents of the new facility would be between ages 3 and 21. When the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded opened, the "patients" lived at Hill Farm on the New Gloucester property. As the population of the facility grew rapidly, so did the building of large dormitories. Gray and Staples halls were the first dorms. Planners had thought residents would live in small units, but that was not practical due to the ever-growing number of residents.

The population grew rapidly for several reasons. First, some medical personnel and caregivers had a goal of sending all developmentally disabled persons to institutions. Also, judges sometimes send people to the facility because they were poor or orphans with no one to care for them. In one well-known case, the state removed residents of Malaga Island off Phippsburg from the island in 1912. Many of the residents were mixed race and some, when removed from the island, were sent to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. Graves in the cemetery at Malaga were dug up and reinterred at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded cemetery.

At times the residents of the institution were largely forgotten by most people in Maine. At other times, they and the facility were closely scrutinized. The history of Pineland offers insights into Maine's treatment of persons with disabilities and a window into national movements and beliefs about such care over nearly a century. Further, the institution never kept to the original legislation specifying that it would serve those ages 3-21. Older persons were residents and few people left at any age, at least legally. Over the years, many residents escaped from the facility, some permanently.

The post World War I era changed ideas about care for persons with developmental issues -- in Maine and elsewhere. At the New Gloucester facility, a new superintendent, Dr. Stephen Vosburg, arrived in 1919. He brought with him new ideas about the facility's population and appropriate treatments. America viewed persons with developmental problems as potential criminals and dangerous to society. These ideas affected how communities and institutions dealt with persons with developmental disabilities. For example, many professionals believed that retardation was hereditary. The method to stop the "spread" of mental retardation was sterilization. It was an era of a belief in eugenics: selective human reproduction to ensure that the "best" people with the "best" genes reproduced -- and those with "defective" traits would not reproduce. Vosburg argued in favor of sterilization for what he called the "subnormal" population in Maine.

In 1925, a state law permitted sterilizations of persons deemed to be mentally deficient. Also in 1925, the facility Vosburg headed changed its name to the Pownal State School, dropping what had become an out-of-date term, "feeble-minded." Along with eugenics, the post World War I era brought the use of intelligence testing. The tests differentiated levels of disability and hence, suggested different care options. Still, most doctors urged parents of children born with developmental problems to place them in institutions immediately after birth.

In the 1930s, while institutions like Pownal State School continued to grow, many began to realize that changes were needed. First, it was too expensive and impractical to think of institutionalizing everyone who had developmental disabilities. Some professionals began considering the benefits of community-based care for those with less severe disabilities. This included the idea of "special education" in public schools for those children who could function in the community. In addition, education was stressed more for some residents of Pownal State School. The institution provided elementary level academic training as well as training in many skills: residents worked on one of the two farms, in the kitchen, the laundry and the hospital. Girls and women learned sewing and other crafts and boys and men learned a variety of manual skills -- all tailored to the ability of the person. The school had a woodshop and print shop and some students learned how to repair machinery of various types.

Pownal also had Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops that participated in parades and other events outside of the institution, as well as giving members opportunities within the school. While the stigma of developmental problems would remain for many years, these activities suggested to residents and the community outside of Pownal State School that developmental problems did not equate with "criminal" or "dangerous" behavior. A new era of care had begun as a new term, "mental deficiency," was being used.

Funding was tight, but the population of the school continued to grow, reaching about 1,100 by the end of the 1930s. The growth was fueled, in part, by the use of Pownal State School to house people without economic means, problem youths and others who did not meet the intent of the facility. Dr. Nessib S. Kupelian, who served as superintendent of Pownal from 1938 to 1953, envisioned Pownal State School growing to serve more than 7,000 residents. In 1939, there were 51 buildings and some 200 employees. The facility was like a small city with its own water system, farms and power plant.

In the post-World War II era, Pownal State School, like many other institutions was increasingly in the public's awareness as commissions, interested citizen groups, former patients and former employees criticized conditions within the facility or raised questions about its method or effectiveness. Gov. Frederick Payne, at the suggestion of the Maine Federation of Women's Clubs, appointed a visitation committee that reported on Pownal State School in January 1951. The report was quite critical. It cited instances of abuse of residents and a lack of constructive work on their behalf. Kupelian and other staff defended their institution and the Maine Legislature appropriated funds for staff increases and other changes.

New buildings were built, including Bliss and Kupelian halls, which opened in 1949, and housed hundred of children in open wards. In later years, Kupelian would come under fire for poor conditions "warehousing" residents. In 1957, the facility became the Pineland Hospital and Training Center. The name suggested the new focus: Bowman, like his predecessors, was a medical doctor, and believed in a medical model of treatment. He added a dentist and psychiatric employees. The name of the facility became "Pineland Hospital and Training Center." All reference or labels about the "condition" of the residents was gone.

By 1970, Pineland had lost its accreditation and, in 1971, Bowman lost his job as superintendent. In 1973, the facility's name was changed yet again. "Pineland Center" as it was now known had dropped any reference to "medical" as well as to "disability." The national trend of deinstitutionalization and community-based care affected Pineland. The patient population decreased to fewer than 500 by the mid-1970s. Pineland stayed in the public eye. Again, national trends played out in Maine as Pine Tree Legal Assistance filed a class action suit in 1975 alleging that Pineland did not provide adequate care. The suit resulted in a consent decree in 1978 that created care standards and set a goal for a smaller institution. The institution's progress was monitored by the courts until 1981. Criticisms of poor care continued, however, and, along with continuing changes in philosophies of care for developmentally handicapped persons and rising costs, led to a state decision in 1991 to close Pineland. It closed in 1996.

Source: Candace Kanes,"Pownal State School and the Issue of Institutionalization". Accessed June 29, 2012.


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