Compiled by Paula Kowalewski Sullivan, Wrentham 350 Member.
Many of us drive by the large area now known as the Wrentham Development Center (WDC) and know little about its often painful history and transformation. This article has been compiled from numerous online sources as well as former WDC employee Ingrid Grenon’s book, "From One Century to the Next: A History of Wrentham State School and the Institutional Model in Massachusetts."
The Wrentham State School, located on a large campus at the junction of Emerald and North Streets, was an historic state-run medical facility for the treatment of psychiatric and developmental disorders. It was built in 1906 for the purpose of reducing crowding at the Fernald School in Waltham. The original campus was built out of nine converted family farmhouses on 500 acres of land.
Dr. George L. Wallace, the original Superintendent accepted 10 boys who were transferred from the Fernald school in Waltham to the new land in Wrentham. He proposed to have a total of 60 boys there by summer 1907. Wallace, like many other mental health physicians at the time, followed the teachings of Dr. Samuel G. Howe of Boston. Howe believed in teaching and training of the mentally disabled, and preparing them for integration into society, rather than segregating them from the general population.  In the early years of the facility, able-bodied young men with developmental disabilities were brought to the school to do farm work, and to learn skills of manual labor.
In its early days, the school was able to serve its population, and became a model for other state institutions. In her book, Grenon includes excerpts from people who visited the school around 1920: "It's painting on the walls. It's so wonderful. It's nothing like the other places they had visited that were like institutions," Grenon said in a Sun Chronicle article, echoing comments from those long-ago witnesses.
But, as time progressed, Wrentham State became overcrowded. And over time—as the school accepted more patients, both male and female ranging in age and degree of disability, and as societal trends of institutionalizing disabled and developmentally disabled people grew—reports of abuse and scandal became ongoing at Wrentham. The school's certification was revoked in 1976 due to the facility's "inability to meet minimum Federal Standards." Overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded, the school was unable to provide quality care, and conditions for patients were described as “deplorable.” There were also reports of fluoride and radiation testing on patients there.
With the abuse accusations, numerous lawsuits against the school, and the onset of deinstitutionalization, many patients were moved into group homes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And as the population of the school declined, the living conditions improved for those who still remained at Wrentham. The name of the school was changed to the Wrentham Developmental Center in 1995 and the facility is still open, caring for the developmentally disabled in a group home environment.
Though the past cannot be erased, the mental health field has grown in its understanding of patient issues and treatment / rehabilitation for those with developmental disabilities. The focus of the WDC is now to serve as a safe place for the aging population to live out the rest of their days in a group home environment. Individuals, ranging in age from 30-90, live on the campus and access day services on the campus or in the community. The school was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1994.
So when you drive by or come by to watch your kids play at the Rice Recreation Complex or attend the Crackerbarrel Fair, you’ll now know a bit of the history and amazing transformation of WDC.
Sources for this article include: The Boston Globe, The Sun Chronicle, Patch, Wikipedia, the Asylum Projects’ discussion on WDC, the Mass. Dept. of Development Services 2021 "Report on the DDS Community Services Expansion and Facilities Restructuring Plan," and Ingrid Grenon’s book, “From One Century to the Next: A History of Wrentham State School and the Institutional Model in Massachusetts.”
State School at Wrentham. (1907, Nov 10). Boston Daily Globe.
Jump up↑ Pfeiffer, David. Samuel Gridley Howe and 'Schools for the Feebleminded’, http://www.ragged-edge-mag.com/0103/0103ft2.html Accessed 23 Sep 2013.
Jump up↑ McLaughlin, Loretta, "Wrentham School Loses Certification." Boston Globe, sec. Local News. 29 May 1976.