Museum reveals human stories behind brains, skeletons at state’s famous mental hospital

It opened in 1848 as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, and for more than 150 years, was home to thousands of patients suffering from schizophrenia, depression, dementia and other mental illnesses.

Indiana’s first mental hospital, later called Central State Hospital, was usually not a place for breakthrough treatments. Patients were hidden away from society, sometimes mistreated, and often put to work on the sprawling farm grounds.

When the patients died, doctors often performed autopsies to try to find physical causes of mental illnesses. Over the years, they collected hundreds of specimens, now part of the Indiana Medical History Museum, located on the former hospital’s grounds on the near-west side of Indianapolis.

Now, the museum is trying to rehumanize the collection of specimens with an open house, to draw more attention to the patients and their experiences at the hospital.

On Tuesday, July 9, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. the medical society is unveiling a new exhibit to the public in an open house at its museum, 3045 W. Vermont St. The open house is free.

The goal is to reveal a story for the patients whose brains and skeletons are on display.

“We want visitors to see humanity in the specimens,” said Sarah Halter, the museum’s executive director. “The general public often doesn’t understand these medical labels, and don’t see the people behind the specimens. We want to change that.”

Over the years, the specimens have been displayed with very clinical descriptions of tumors and lesions and other physical damage, the museum said. They highlighted the things that the pathologist at the time felt were important for medical students and physicians to know and recognize.

“The stories the old labels tell are not human stories,” the museum’s website said. “They are stories of disease and disorder told from a very clinical perspective. There is certainly value in that, intellectually and scientifically. But they inadvertently take away the humanity of the individual represented.”

To correct that, museum staffers have been working for four years to find the human stories behind the collection of brains and skeletons. They have been working with local historians, archivists and pathologists from the Indiana State Archives and Indiana University School of Medicine.

“Much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, museum staffers have been scouring medical charts, autopsy reports, hospital admissions papers, newspaper clippings, city directories and other paperwork in an effort to better understand the stories behind its collections of specimens,” Smithsonian magazine wrote on July 2.

In one display, for example, a brain specimen once carried this antiseptic label: “#1117 (1936), C.E. L., male, age 69. General paralysis (psychosis with syphilitic meningoencephalitis). The meninges have been removed to show the marked cortical atrophy (gaping of sulci).”

But the new label, nearby, carries a story about the patient, identified as “Charles L.”

“Charles, a farmer by trade and a father of two, was described by those who knew him as a kind and considerate person. He was admitted to Central State Hospital in 1933 at the age of 66 after his wife, Louisa, began to notice a gradual change in his disposition. The once-thoughtful man was exhibiting homicidal and suicidal thoughts and actions and now had to be restrained.”

Originally the hospital staff thought his condition was due to injuries sustained in a car crash in 1927, But instead of getting healed, Charles’ condition worsened in the hospital. He developed a high fever and passed away three years after being admitted.  The autopsy revealed his psychosis was not caused by the car crash, but by a disease that inflamed the right hemisphere of his brain.

Dozens more labels tell stories of other patients, their diseases and treatments.

At its peak around 1950, the hospital housed about 2,500 patients. The Pathological Department continued until the 1960s, and was reborn as a museum in 1969, with hundreds of specimens, along with artifacts from laboratories, the library, an autopsy room and records rooms.

The hospital closed in 1994, following several scandals regarding patient abuse, according to the museum’s website.

The museum hopes to make the “Rehumanizing” project a permanent exhibit. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with one-hour guided tours that start on the hour. Although the open house Tuesday is free, normal admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for college students and $3 for students under 18.

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