The State Village for Epileptics was located where Skillman Park is today, adjacent to Blawenburg, just north of Rock Brook. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the village was a large community of 1600 patients with epilepsy and up to 500 people who attended them. In this blog series, we will tell the tales of the State Village and its successors, the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, and the North Princeton Developmental Center. Part 1 will show how and why the State Village came into being. Part 2 will look at how the self-sustaining village operated in its early years through an interview with Dr. Dan Pullen, who grew up in the State Village and later worked there with his father as a dentist. Parts 3 and 4 will share what life was like at the village in the words of those who lived there and those who lived in and around Blawenburg.
In the Beginning—the Eugenics Movement
To understand why the State Village for Epileptics was built and why Montgomery Township became its home, we have to look at the thoughts and trends about epilepsy in the latter part of the 19th century. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes people to have seizures. Approximately 1% of the population has epilepsy. There was a belief at the time that people who had epilepsy and other “deficiencies” were genetically predisposed to them. The belief at the time was that people with epilepsy should be separated from the regular population so they wouldn’t do damage to others. They also believed that “deficient” people should be kept from reproducing.
Eugenics had roots in England. Francis Galton was an English intellectual who studied many fields, including math, science, and psychology. He was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, whose work on evolution we still debate today. Galton became interested in the work of animal breeders, who were trying to create animals with desirable traits. He extended this idea to humans and wrote about it in his 1869 book, Hereditary Genius. He said just as we can “…. obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar
powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it
Francis Galton would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted
race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.”
Galton coined the term eugenics and defined it as “the science of improving stock, whether human or animal.” Said another way, eugenics referred to the selective breeding of animals and people to prevent future generations from carrying forward their undesirable traits. The word eugenics comes from the Greek words eu for “good” and genics for “birth”. He felt that by applying principles of genetics and heredity, we could create “good births” to improve humans.
This movement came to the United States near the turn of the 20th century. Charles Davenport, a chicken breeder, became interested in applying eugenics to his farming interests, then he extended his theories to humans. He teamed up with Harry Laughlin, a science teacher