New at Remember… Article about the notorious Dr. Henry Cotton–and the deaths of hundreds with mental illness that his practices led to

Dr. Henry Cotton

Dr. Henry Cotton

Psychiatry can be a faddish medical science. The history of psychiatry is replete with controversial and often discredited theories about causes and treatments of mental illness. Many have led to stigma, harm, and grief.

When Dorothea Dix founded it in 1848, Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, then called the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, was considered a progressive new place for the treatment of mental illness. From 1907 to 1930, Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, now called  New Jersey State Hospital, was led by the young and heralded–later, the controversial and discredited–Dr. Henry A. Cotton (1876-1933).

Also considered progressive in his time, Dr. Cotton embraced the new concept of scientific medicine that was emerging among physicians at the turn of the 20th century. It included a belief that insanity was the result of untreated infections in the body. Cotton termed this “focal sepsis”. He maintained that infections found in distant corners of the body, such as teeth, intestines, and bowels, caused mental illness–and that removing these could cure it.

Illustration of a mouth with teeth removed, from a textbook by Henry Cotton's book about focal sepsis as a cause of mental illness

Illustration of a mouth with teeth removed, from a textbook by Henry Cotton’s book about focal sepsis as a cause of mental illness

Accordingly, Cotton directed his dental and medical staff to practice experimental “surgical bacteriology” on the patients, notably “exdontia” (teeth extractions) and intestine removal.

Cotton’s theories and practices became suspect when results were finally critically examined. Later, it was revealed that Dr. Cotton’s practices indeed led to hundreds of unnecessary patient deaths during his directorship.

Author Andrew Scull wrote a compelling book about the controversial Cotton, entitled Madhouse: A Tragic Tale about Megalomania and Modern Medicine. In 2005, he wrote a short article about Cotton and his practices in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, available to read here.

To see more history about Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, click here.


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