It’s always scary when you’re sick, but we really are fortunate today. We don’t have to worry about diseases such as polio or typhoid, it’s easy to forget that even an ear infection had too often been fatal during our great grandparents era, it doesn’t seem anyone had it worse than the mentally ill; the way in which they were treated even within the past 100 years is nothing short of a nightmare.
Dr. Henry Cotton is known for his horrific experiments while working as the medical director at New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton. This doctor operated under the ridiculous assumption that people became mentally ill due to focal sepsis. In other words, Cotton believed that his patients suffered from an infection in some body part or another; this infection had traveled to the brain and that was the reason why people went mad.
The focal sepsis and mental illness connection was originally thought up by Cotton’s college professor, Dr. Adolf Meyer of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Meyer thought this to exist because of the way a person often reacts to a very high fever with delirium and hallucinations. In theory, if you were to perform surgery on the infected body part (surgery usually meant the removal of the part) then the illness should disappear, too. The problem was, there was just no telling where that infection was located; Dr Cotton usually thought that the best place was in a patient’s mouth. If infected teeth were removed, surely the mental condition would improve. If the dental surgery didn’t fix the patient, Cotton would begin taking other things.
A patient’s sinuses and/or tonsils were often next to go. If that didn’t cure the patient, organs such as the cervix, ovaries, spleen, gall bladder, colon, testes, even the entire stomach would be removed. Cotton would simply continue taking things until either the patient got better, or died. Care to guess which happened most often?
Cotton hadn’t been exactly truthful in his medical reports, matter of fact the doctor claimed to have successfully cured 85% of his mentally ill patients! These reports focused on the patients who were in recovery, so people really believed in what the doctor was doing. He became a lead physician in the psychology field; Cotton was internationally loved and honored, and his way of treating the mentally ill was adopted by doctors throughout the world.
The patients within the hospital quickly became aware of exactly what was happening, they knew that to go under Cotton’s knife often meant death and they fought like hell to survive! Sadly these people didn’t have much of a choice; once you were accepted by the hospital, the doctor and his staff had full control. Still, the general public remained clueless, they were only hearing great things! Mentally ill people from all over the country believed that they could be cured by this man; they begged and pleaded for Cotton to treat them, and they paid good money to become one of his patients. By the time they had been accepted and realized their mistake, well, it was too late.
The medical community weren’t aware of Cotton’s unbelievably high failure rate for many years. In 1922 the New Jersey Senate decided to look into the doctors work; it was found that while 25% of Cotton’s patients had recovered, and 15% had improved, 30% had not improved at all, and another 30% were just plain dead!
You’d think that these findings would’ve been the end of this craziness, but you’d be wrong! Cotton had accumulated one heck of a following and he was permitted to continue ripping out body parts and leaving corpses in his wake. It does appear that the bad press may have been bad for business because at this point Cotton himself claimed a mental breakdown – you’ll never guess what fixed him! The doctor diagnosed himself with several infected teeth, which he had pulled, and voila! Cotton had cured himself!
Though after 1930 he was no longer working in the hospital, Cotton did make a killing from a private practice he’d opened in Trenton. Thankfully this horrid man was taken out by a heart attack in 1933. Still, the practice of removing teeth from mental patients remained common in New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum until 1960.
Cotton had been the head of the mental hospital for 26 years; within this time he performed nearly 650 unneeded operations and yanked 11,000 teeth. I can not find a good estimate on how many patients died due to Cotton’s experiments, but it was a lot; 30% is a ridiculously high number, and that may be low. One site claims one third of his patients died from one surgery or another.