Dr. William Bronston’s Willowbrook Memorial Lecture, presented on April 30, 2019 (Abridged)

On April 30, 2019, Dr. William Bronston delivered a Willowbrook Memorial Lecture at City University New York. Fifty years later, as Dr. Bronston stated, “The only way we’re going to transform the Willowbrooks of society is through law and a new democracy that we have to generate.”

Dr. William Bronston: So when you congregate and segregate people that are devalued, they become more devalued. Becomes absolutely inhumane. It becomes a crime against humanity. There has to be an understanding that the only way we're going to transform the Willowbrooks of the society is through law, through a new democracy that we have to generate. The thing that worries me is a lack of any kind of enlightened administration from the operation of the institution all the way to the governor's office.

I mean, look, this is 50 years old. I can't even believe it. I can't believe that it's been 50 years. And the people that ran Willowbrook; Jack Hammond, Milton Jacobs, who was his assistant, Manny Sternlicht, who was the psychologist, the nurses that ran the institution were killers. Because the death rate here was ten times the death rate of New York City.

The institutional system in America still has a river of Title 19 Medicaid money going into it that sustains it and this gigantic, trillion-dollar-plus industry that's now controlled by fewer and fewer major monopolies. And they don't want a government to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. People say the system is broken. The system is not broken.

You have limitless power if you think about how you wanna work your voice. There are struggles going on out there of such consequence. Willowbrook is just a metaphor for man's inhumanity to man. But something's wrong in terms of why the system is going right back to the way it was. This is not bragging.

I decided I was gonna bring this place down by myself. Why? Because that pig that ran the place fired all the teachers 'cause the teachers asked him please to have the ward workers support their work in the afternoon and evening shifts and to keep the training working for this token group of people, and the bastard fired all those teachers.

And I thought, "That's the end of that. He's a done dog." I tried organizing the workers 'cause I came here 'cause I was one of the physicians for the Black Panther party on the eastern seaboard. And I thought that this was the largest black factory, that there would be a lot of Panthers here. There were none.

And so the only leftover constituency that had the chops to bring about the change were the parents. And so we had to go to the parents, and organizing the parents was a piece of cake. All we had to do was let them in the door, open the door, let them see the truth of this monstrosity. They were not allowed in the buildings.

The workers would bring the kid to the door and propel them out for the weekend or whatever. They were not allowed in the buildings. And it was a prairie fire. And so I just began inviting to bring everybody I knew that was a world-class child development killer to come, to look at this thing and then to talk about what the alternative is Let me tell you that the people who ran Willowbrook were totally incompetent.

I don't think that there would have been a killing field here apart from the killing field caused by the deprivation that was universal in the place. They needed those people for money. No matter how near-dead a person was, they needed to keep them here in order to get that Medicaid reimbursement. It would not have been in the interest of the state to eliminate their unwanted population. They're too valuable a commodity in order to fund the system.