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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

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