Henry Brill (1907-1990)
In 1932, Dr. Henry Brill arrived at the massive Pilgrim State Hospital complex
in Brentwood as a 25-year-old intern with the lofty goal of easing the mental
suffering of his patients.
The tools available to him were still from the Dark Ages of psychiatric
treatment-cold baths, straightjackets and injections of malaria toxin, and
later on, lobotomies and electroshock.
But this compassionate, hard-working and insightful psychiatrist was convinced
that mental illness was triggered by factors as real and clinically verifiable
as those that caused physical illnesses such as pneumonia. Medicine, he
reasoned, would ultimately win the battle against mental illness.
The first hints that he was right emerged in the 1950s with the development of
antipsychotics and tranquilizing medicines that quelled the hallucinations and
delusions in some of the state's most severely ill patients.
Brill's commitment to the medical model paid off. In 1958, just as he fought
for his patients' access to newly developed antipsychotics and tranquilizers,
he became director of Pilgrim, one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the
country. Gone were the insulin comas and the picks used to put holes deep into
the patient's brain tissue.
Brill guided patients-and the Pilgrim staff-through the changes in treatment
that would forever change life in psychiatric hospitals.
Indeed, Brill was at the forefront of the deinstitutionalization movement-but
not without regrets. "It was implemented too quickly with not enough time to
develop support services," he would say years later. "It would have been better
for the patients if we had gone slower."-Jamie Talan