I is for Institutionalisation (Part One)

by Mitchell Wilson

Part One: The Rise of the Institution

[TW: Institutionalisation, Ableism, Eugenics]

On the afternoon of December 31, 1959, journalist and historian Pierre Berton unexpectedly arrived at the Ontario Hospital School in Orillia, Ontario.  He was accompanying a friend who was dropping his son off at the sprawling complex located on the shores of Lake Simcoe.  Berton managed to secure a tour from staff and what he witnessed horrified both him and the readers of his column in the Toronto Daily Star.

He found 2,807 people living in facility designed for less than 1,000.  Buildings were improperly fireproofed and peeling paint, leaky ceilings and crumbling plaster left gaping holes in the walls.  Badly worn wooden floors, patched with pieces of plywood, emitted the stench of seventy years worth of absorbed urine, blood and feces.  Beds were crammed together, sometimes with less then a foot between them.  On one floor 67 people used a single wash basin and on another 144 shared a bathtub.

The conditions found in Orillia were horrifying but they were not the result of an isolated incident.  In the decades following the Second World War numerous exposés into conditions at institutions were created and a blissfully unaware world was forced to confront the terrible realities of mass institutionalisation.  In this blog I am going to talk about the history of the Ontario Hospital School, Orillia, but it is a story which is much the same as that of institutions throughout the world.  Some of them became infamous, with names such as Pennhurst and Willowbrook, others have been all but forgotten.

This history will be divided into two distinct chapters.  Part one will examine the rise of the institution, from the work of reformers in the mid 1800’s to the advent of the eugenics movement in the first decades of the 20th century.  Part two will focus on daily life in a large institution, drawing from government documents like inspection reports and the remembrances of survivors.

When Pierre Berton visited Orillia on New Year’s Eve, 1959, the institution had already been operating in one form or another for 83 years and it would continue to operate for another 50 years after he left.  Its origins, like that of many early institutions, are found in the mid-19th century, an era when most people with intellectual, developmental and psychiatric disabilities found themselves living out their lives in prisons or poorhouses.

In 1839 “An Act to Authorize the Erection of an Asylum within this Province for the Reception of Insane and Lunatic Persons” was passed and lead to the establishment of Ontario’s first institution, originally housed in a disused jail and later in a purpose built facility at 999 Queen Street in Toronto.  However, those responsible for the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, as it came to be known, had intended their institution to be put to use curing the mentally ill and did not wish for it to function as a home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who they viewed as incurable.

As a result of overcrowding at the Queen Street site several branches were opened.  The Orillia branch was opened in 1861 and was located in an unfinished hotel on the town’s waterfront.  Bars were installed on the three story verandas facing Lake Couchiching and 150 people with a variety of disabilities were housed in the building, which was said to resemble a human zoo.  The old hotel, however, soon proved to be an inadequate facility and it was closed in 1870.  This may have been the end of the story were it not for the citizens of Orillia, who viewed an institution as an employment opportunity.  As a result the government re-opened the facility as the Asylum for Idiots, Orillia in 1876.  It would be Ontario’s first institution for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and on the 25th of September several hundred citizens turned out to view the arrival of first 44 inmates.  “Arrival of Idiots” was the headline that graced the pages of the Orillia Expositor.

The new institution included several additions which housed single rooms and dormitories as well as a laundry, kitchen and dining rooms.  The main floor contained a reception room and administration offices.  The building was steam heated and lit with gas produced on site, while water was pumped from the lake and stored in three tanks.  Despite these improvements the facilities were soon overwhelmed.  The basements of the newly opened Hamilton Asylum were used for overflow until a second vacant hotel could be used.  In 1885 the province acquired 150 acres of land on the shores of Lake Simcoe, two miles south Orillia’s town limits.  As the province prepared to construct a purpose built institution on the site, a new type of “science” was coming into being and it would dramatically alter the way people in positions of power would perceive disabled people.

Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, a year after the death of his half cousin Charles Darwin.  Based on an interpretation of the theory of evolution that Darwin himself disagreed with, eugenics was the idea that the human race could be improved by weeding out certain undesirable traits.  This lead to increased fears about the threat that “feebleminded” people posed to the dominant race, meaning able, white, upper-middle class, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  Eugenics was embraced by many in the medical community and in Ontario this was could be seen in the interests of doctors like Charles K. Clarke, who operated a psychiatric clinic out of the basement of the Toronto General Hospital, and Helen MacMurchy, who became Ontario’s Inspector of the Feebleminded in 1906.

Like many women of her class MacMurchy was a staunch eugenicist and her approach to public health reflected this.  Blame for issues like poverty, crime, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. was placed not on social factors but on feeblemindedness, which eugenicists believed to be hereditary.  MacMurchy was a strong advocate for medical inspections of public schools so that “subnormal” students could be segregated from their “normal” peers for the betterment of society.  According to MacMurchy’s dubious statistics the “mental defective”, who accounted for only 3-5 in every 1,000 people, made up 60% of alcoholics, 66% percent of juvenile delinquents, 50% of unmarried mothers and 29-90% of sex workers.  MacMurchy saw mass institutionalisation as a solution to the threat that she believed the “feebleminded” posed to society.  If incarcerated the disabled person could be protected from “evils and temptations that he will never be grown-up enough to resist”, while society at large would be protected from their (supposed) deviance.  Institutionalisation would also prevent people with disabilities from producing more so-called defective offspring, something that was vital to eugenicist ideology.  The role that institutions were to take was laid out clearly at a meeting of the National Council of Women in 1901:

“Left to yourself you are not only useless, but mischievous.  I have tried punishing, curing, reforming you, as the case may be: and I have failed.  You are an uncurable, a degenerate, a being unfit for free, social life.  Henceforth I shall care for you, I will feed and clothe you, and give you a reasonably comfortable life.  In return you will do the work I set out for you and you will abstain from interfering with your neighbour to his detriment.  One other thing you will abstain from, – you will no longer pro-create your kind; you must be the last member of your feeble and degenerate family.”

The beginnings of a eugenicist approach to institutionalisation can already be seen in the site purchased for the new, purpose built Asylum for Idiots.  The location two miles outside Orillia was specifically chosen because it would isolate residents from the broader community, both for their perceived protection and for the alleged protection of society at large.  The new institution would be built using the cottage plan, then a new institution design which would come to replace the earlier Kirkbride plan.  Instead of being housed in one large building, residents would live in a series of separate cottages, the first two of which (buildings 1 and 2 in the aerial photo) were built between 1887 and 1888.  The cottages at Orillia were large red brick buildings, each consisting of an attic, three stories and a basement.

In 1891 a third building (building 3 on the aerial photo) was opened.  This building contained administrative offices and an amusement hall capable of holding 1,000 people.  The main floor on either side of the administration area was a training school for those residents who it was decided were teachable. The upper two floors provided living quarters for these residents, while the remaining “low grade” residents were warehoused in the two older cottages.  In addition to these buildings the grounds also included farm buildings and land where crops were grown and animals were raised to feed the staff and residents.  Several houses were also constructed to house staff, who superintendent Dr. Alexander Beaton felt should live on site rather than two miles away in Orillia.  In front of the building, terraced gardens and a long path/staircase lead toward the waterfront and the railway line which cut through the property.  Construction of these landscaping features was carried out using the forced labour of the residents, who also worked the farm without pay.

By 1897 the newly built institution was already filled to capacity and over 139 people were on the waiting list for admissions.  Beaton made several suggestions to alleviate overcrowding including the opening of a specific institution for epileptic residents, the construction of an additional two cottages and the acquisition of more land for the farm, which would include housing for residents being used as farm labour.  He reiterated these suggestions the following year as the applications list climbed to 220.  In 1902 Beaton highlighted the institutions commitment to practically implementing eugenicist policies when he urged the construction of two cottages which would be used to house feebleminded women of child-bearing age.

“There can be no question about the wisdom of this step, and until something of the kind is done the rapid increase in the number of feeble-minded will continue.  But if the 600 or 700 feeble-minded women, many of whom are steadily adding to the idiotic and otherwise defective population of the province, were confined in a custodial asylum, the number of defectives, paupers, and petty criminals would decrease, and in less than one generation the cost for maintenance of public institutions would be greatly lessened.”

Beaton also believed that these women would provide a valuable source of free labour in the operation of the institution’s laundry and other domestic departments.

In 1910 Beaton retired as superintendent and was replaced by J.P. Downey, who was not a doctor but a politician.  Downey’s goal as superintendent was to create a self sustaining institution and to that end he acquired an additional 279 acres of land for the farm and oversaw construction of a fire hall, sewage treatment plant, laundry building and an expanded kitchen.  Two new cottages (buildings 4 and 5 on the aerial photo) were also constructed in this era, using the labour of residents and prisoners from the provincial reform system.  Produce from the farm as well as items such as shoes, boots and clothing were produced in such abundance that the excess could be sold to other facilities throughout the province, though the residents who harvested and manufactured this excess never saw a penny for their labour.

Despite these “advancements” which furthered Downey’s goal of creating “one of the largest and most modern” institutions in North America, the superintendent was frustrated over the kind of people being admitted to the institution.  Downey did not want the very old, young or those with high support needs filling up the facility.  Under his watch all those who were able would be put to work while those unable to contribute to the operation of the facility would be hidden away in the upper reaches of the institution.  Although Downey died in 1926 his views would continue to impact the operation of the institution, which by then had come to be known as the Ontario Hospital, Orillia.  As late as the 1950’s residents with higher support needs continued to be housed in terrible conditions on the upper floors of the oldest parts of the hospital.

Following Downey’s death, Dr. B.T. MacGie became the new superintendent.  Under his guidance more emphasis was placed on education and a social services department and training school for nurses was established.  However, MacGie’s time as superintendent was short lived and by the 1930’s he had been replaced by Dr. S.J.W. Horne.  Beginning in this era government inspectors made somewhat regular visits to the hospital.  In part two we will draw from these reports and the testimony of survivors to gain a glimpse into the realities of day to day life at the institution in Orillia.

This is part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.