By 1900 overcrowding in New York City's psychiatric asylums had become a serious problem. There were several strategies implemented to deal with the escalating patient overload. One was to put the patients to work, farming in a relaxed setting on what was then rural LOng Island. The new state hospitals were dubbed "farm colonies" because of their live-and-work treatment programs and emphasis on agriculture. However, these farm colonies, Kings Park State Hospital
, (later named Kings Park Psychiatric Center
) and Central Islip State Hospital
(later named Central Islip Psychiatric Center
), became overcrowded, like the institutions they were meant to replace.
New York State began making plans for a third farm colony, which was to become Pilgrim State Hospital, named in honor of the former New York
State Commissioner of Mental Health, Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim
. The state bought approximately 1,000 acres (400 ha) of land in Brentwood and began construction on the hospital in 1929. Pilgrim State Hospital opened on October 1, 1931 as a close-knit community with its own police and fire department, courts, post office, a LIRR station, power plant, swine farm, church, cemetery and water tower, as well as houses for staff and administrators. A series of tunnels
were used for routing utilities. Each set of buildings were known as quads, a pattern of four buildings situated around a center building, where the kitchen was located.
The hospital continued to grow as the patient population increased greatly. Eventually, the state of New York bought up more land to the southwest of the facility to construct Edgewood State Hospital
, a short-lived facility that was a subsidiary of Pilgrim State Hospital. In fact, Pilgrim State Hospital was so large that it reached into four Suffolk towns: Huntington, Babylon, Smithtown and Islip, and had two state roads passing through its bounds.
During World War II
, the War Department
took control of Edgewood State Hospital, along with three new buildings at Pilgrim State Hospital, buildings 81, 82, and 83. The War Department constructed numerous temporary structures and renamed Edgewood State Hospital and buildings 81–83 "Mason General Hospital
," a psychiatric hospital devoted to treating battle-traumatized soldiers. Renowned filmmaker John Huston
, who received a special commission in the U.S. Army Signal Corps
during World War II, made a documentary
at Mason General Hospital called "Let There Be Light
", which showed the effects of war on mental health. The film was highly controversial and was not seen by the public until 1981.
After World War II, Pilgrim State Hospital experienced an increase in patient population that made it the world's largest hospital, with 13,875 patients and over 4,000 employees. In the 1950s more aggressive treatments, such as lobotomy
and electro-convulsive therapy
(ECT) were implemented. The best known controversy about this surrounded the case of Beulah Jones
, a patient there between 1952 and 1972 who received both such treatments and was left seriously impaired. However, Pilgrim State Hospital and the other state hospitals began to decline shortly afterwards with the advent of pharmaceutical alternatives to institutionalization. The number of patients dropped greatly.
Dr. Henry Brill
served as the director of Pilgrim from 1958 to 1974 and presided over both the introduction of the new anti-psychotic medications and the large numbers of discharges related to good response to these medications.