Former Medical Director Remembers "Dark Ages" At Montana
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
September 8, 2003
BOULDER, MONTANA--In 1947, when Dr. Phil Pallister first visited what was known as the Montana School for Backward Feeble Minded Children, he found the conditions and treatment inhumane -- much worse than what we would allow for animals today.
He still recalls the smells of urine and feces from the floors, clothing and bedding. Residents were locked indoors, 50 to a room, and forced to drink water from shared buckets. Many died from infections, malnutrition, drowning in bathtubs and beatings from other residents.
Over the next few years, Pallister was contracted as the medical director of the institution. In the 1950s, something changed within him.
"I began to come to my senses," Pallister told the Billings Gazette. "We had to start treating them as human beings."
Pallister began advocating for people to move into the community and for better conditions for those who remained at the institution, later called the Montana Developmental Center. He successfully lobbied the state Legislature to provide $4,000 to cover exposed steam pipes in the building so that residents who had seizures wouldn't fall and burn themselves on the pipes. The money, though, was later diverted to improve the facility's landscaping.
In response, Pallister took photos of residents' burned faces, and displayed them in his office, until covers were finally installed on the steam pipes.
He also helped a number of residents register to vote.
"Everybody in Helena just about puked," Pallister said. "They sure didn't like that."
At one time in the 1970s MDC housed 1,200 people with developmental disabilities. Now there are about 80 people housed in a number of smaller cottages -- between 6 and 12 people in each -- on the campus.
Every month through the end of the year, five people will move to MDC from Eastmont Human Services Center in Glendive which is closing for budgetary reasons and safety concerns. A handful of Eastmont residents will be moving to group homes in the community.
"Ex-director looks back at state's care" (Billings Gazette)
"Major changes at the state's last institution for the mentally retarded" (Billings Gazette)