Death by roach powder

From Time Magazine, November 30, 1942, Vol. 40, Issue 22

Assistant Cook A. M. McKillop was short-handed and in a tearing hurry. His supper menu at the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane, in Salem, called for scrambled eggs. He needed powdered milk to make them. Against the rules he dispatched a kitchen-helper inmate to the catacomb-like cellar to bring him a new supply.

The eggs were served. At long tables in one dining ward, 467 mental patients clinked their forks and spoons against their tin and enamelware plates. Minutes later they began to drop in anguish to the floor. That night and the next day 47 of them died. In the tiny morgue the bodies had to be piled like cordwood.

For three days State police quizzed terrified employes and bewildered patients.

At last the truth came out. The kitchen helper seeking the powdered milk had dim-wittedly come back from the wrong storeroom with seven pounds of sodium fluoride roach powder, with which hurried, overworked Cook McKillop had scrambled the eggs. At week’s end McKillop and his boss, Mary O’Hare, were booked on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

The hydrangea hedges, the big round beds of pansies, a fountain tinkling outside the main entrance of the institution “out at the end of Center Street,” where Oregon houses 3,000 of its mental patients, make its externals pleasing to the eye. But any Oregonian who knows enough to make comparisons is shocked by the interior of this mid-Victorian (1883) Bedlam. Its 3,000 patients are 1,000 more than facilities properly can care for. Two toilets, seatless and of vintage unknown, must serve 60 men; 62 women share one metal wash basin.

Thanks to conscientious Dr. John C. Evans, superintendent, the institution is clean. But thanks to Oregon’s legislature and public neglect, the State spends scarcely more than half as much money per month per patient as neighboring California, leaves its institution’s superintendent to cope as best he may with too many patients, too small a staff. At a cost of 47 deaths, Oregon may learn to take better care of her insane.