The New Jersey Lunatic Asylum was supposed to usher in a whole new age of psychiatric study, it was to be an embodiment of the country's enlightened mentality toward those less fortunate. Instead, just under sixty years after opening, this asylum had become a hellish prison for the mentally and physically handicapped patients trapped inside. Today it serves as the setting for one of the darkest tales in the history of psychiatric medicine, and it all began when Dr. Henry Cotton became medical director in 1907.
Cotton was a firm believer that the onset and persistence of mental illness in a person stemmed from infections within one's body. In order to preserve and restore the troubled minds of the patients under his care, the doctor and his staff took to removing the patient's teeth. It was Cotton's belief that the teeth were the most likely location in a patient’s body to house infections. However, if symptoms persisted after teeth removal, additional body parts were systematically removed. The next most common organs to be removed if tooth extractions failed were the tonsils and sinus. From there the patient could loose a number of internal organs, including but not limited to the colon, cervix, ovaries, gall badder, stomach, spleen, and testicles. Based solely upon his own research and experimentation, Cotton publicly reported a wonderful success rate for his patients. The study of infections was still a new science at the time, and due to his alleged link between that and mental illness, Cotton garnered much praise in the medical community both in the United States and Europe.
More gruesome still - The surgeries Cotton preformed were done in an era before the use of antibiotics, resulting in a high mortality rate due to postoperative infections. Many of the patients at Trenton Psychiatric were mentally handicapped, some quite severely so. Still, the fact that many of the people who went under Cotton's knife ended up dead some time thereafter was not lost on the patient populace. This resulted in patients who became very fearful of surgery, and accounts of patients who were literally dragged into the operating room in a state of panic. Eventually Cotton's methods began to draw the attention of other members in the medical field, members who felt that surgical procedures did little to help with one's mental state. To those ends, Dr. Meyer, head of the psychiatric clinic and training institution at John Hopkin's University was contacted to do an independent overview of the work occurring at Trenton Psyche. After Dr. Meyer had returned from a visit to the hospital which left him with concerns about Cotton's methods and the system by which his work was reviewedMeyer commissioned a member of his staff, Dr. Phyllis Greenacre, to critique Cotton's work at the hospital. Dr. Greenacre began her review in the fall of 1924.
Her initial feelings upon entering the hospital were unsettling - She remarked about how disturbing it was that most of the patients at the facility lacked teeth, making speech and the simple act of eating meals very difficult undertakings for them to preform, let alone for her to watch. When delving into the paperwork regarding Cotton's surgical treatments and results, she found the official records to be impossible to draw results from. Not only were they poorly documented, they also held many contradictions. By 1925 interest in the hospital reached the NJ State Senate, which launched their own investigation into the hospital and the practices of it's staff.
During this turbulent time Dr. Cotton became quite ill, with rumors surfacing that he suffered from a mental breakdown. Regardless, Cotton diagnosed himself as ailing from several infected teeth. After having them removed Cotton announced himself as cured, and returned to work at the hospital. Soon thereafter Cotton opened a private practice in Trenton NJ, which did very well and made him quite wealthy. During this time Dr. Meyer, who initiated the critique of Dr. Cotton's methods at Trenton Psychiatric, instructed Dr. Greenacre to cease her work. Despite her protest and request to complete her report on Cotton and his treatments Greenacre was reassigned and her report was left forever unfinished. The lack of third-party critique now meant that Dr. Cotton was free to continue his own work uninhibited. This was reprieve proved short-lived, as Cotton died of a sudden heart-attack in 1933. Upon his death, the New York Times, as well as numerous other professional publications in the United States and abroad heralded his death as a loss of one of society's greatest doctors.
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