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Painful days revisited

Ill and abandoned children in Peabody Home focus of exhibit

When Maralynn Mayer Johnson was 7 years old, her parents took her to a home for crippled children.

Over the next seven years, her parents would write to her every day. They would come to the home on the first Sunday of each month, the one day parents were allowed to visit their children. Out of anger, she would often break the cast that doctors put on her foot to help her heal from a form of tuberculosis. Later, she discovered that her parents had to pay for each new cast.

When she was healed, at the age of 14, she was released from the home. She later married, had three children, and taught in public schools for 35 years.

But rarely has she talked about her experiences in Room 114 of the Peabody Home for Crippled Children in Newton.

The Newton History Museum has an exhibit on the home, bringing back memories of a period that many tried for years to suppress. From 1895 until 1961, the Peabody Home housed children with diseases that at the time were incurable, mainly joint and bone tuberculosis, polio, and other orthopedic conditions.

''As far as I'm concerned, it was a home," said Johnson, who is now 66. ''Big kids took care of little kids. But once we went home, no one ever communicated."

Next week, the museum is bringing several former residents of the home together for a forum in which they will recount their memories of some of the most difficult periods of their lives.

The children were dropped off by their parents -- some couldn't care for their children, others were ashamed of their children's disabilities -- at a 40-acre estate in the Oak Hill section of Newton.

At its peak in the 1930s and early '40s, the home cared for as many as 100 patients, with numbers declining as medical advances reduced the length of stay and afforded more treatment options, according to exhibit organizer Susan Abele, the museum's curator of manuscripts and photographs.

It was against the rules to cry at the home. Parents could visit just once each month because doctors thought more visits would make the children emotionally upset and would take longer for them to heal.

Teachers taught grades 1 through 12 in the same room. Those who had surgery stayed upstairs until they were healthy enough to join the others downstairs.

Some have bittersweet memories of their time in the home.

''Those nurses were very, very dedicated to the children, because a lot of the parents disowned them," said Joey Scrooc, who has cerebral palsy and was taken to the home in the 1940s when his mother became pregnant. ''They didn't want you to be around your parents all the time, because they knew that a lot of these people were not going to get out on their own. A lot of these patients were going to be institutionalized the rest of their lives."

Boys were separated from girls. They had complete sets of the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys books.

''I learned to play baseball by hitting with my crutch, dropping it, and running like hell," Johnson said. If you couldn't reach the base, she said, ''you tag with your crutch."

Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams came to visit, as did members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The children played dodgeball and red rover and ''did everything other teenagers did," Johnson said.

The facility included an X-ray unit, an operating suite, and several recovery rooms. Some of the best-known orthopedic specialists in the area worked at the home, and a one-year training program for nursing attendants was established to provide specialized education in the care of crippled children.

Dr. Robert Lovett, professor of orthopedics at Harvard, began a program of curative surgery, and in 1913, was the first in Massachusetts to use heliotherapy -- sunshine and fresh air -- to treat what was called surgical tuberculosis.

This was before drugs like penicillin and streptomycin. Photos of the home show children in metal splints and braces around their legs -- medical techniques that seem foreign by today's standards.

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the home, however, was being separated from family.

''For a lot of the children, their parents never wanted to see them," Scrooc said.

Helen Winn, whose daughter was in the home for 5½ years in the 1940s, said taking her there was a wrenching decision. When she dropped her daughter Judith off at the home, she fainted.

''It was a very difficult time in my life," Helen Winn said. ''I had a choice: She had fallen down the stairs six times. She started to limp. The doctors at the Brockton Hospital wanted to operate, but I wasn't so sure. So I took her to the Peabody Home."

Her daughter eventually left the home and entered the fifth grade. She later married and had five children. She lived until she was 63 and died of complications unrelated to her childhood disease.

''My daughter, once she left that hospital, she never talked about it. Never," said Winn, 89, who now lives in Brockton. ''She said, 'It's behind me.' "

In the early 19th century, the property was used as an artists' retreat. In 1920, it was acquired by the New England Peabody Home, which had previously been in Hyde Park for 25 years.

It was located on a 40-acre site at the corner of Brookline and Dedham streets, on the former estate of Harvard surgeon James Bigelow. The home closed in 1961, and the city purchased the property in 1963. Edward Leventhal bought the house in 1979, and ''This Old House," the WGBH-TV series, converted the property into a five-unit condominium development.

''As far as I'm concerned, I was given what was best for me at the time," said Johnson, who received a master's degree in education from Framingham State College and taught in Newton for 25 years. Now she is a substitute teacher in the Waltham public schools.

But every day Johnson is reminded of the seven years she spent in the Peabody Home, even when doing something as mundane as tying her shoes. Because of the tuberculosis that she suffered from at an early age, her right foot is a size 3 and her left foot is a size 7.

''Once you came home, you never talked about it," she said. ''You went on in life."

The Newton History Museum is sponsoring a reunion of former patients, family members, and staff members of the Peabody Home for Crippled Children on Sunday. It will be the first time former patients have officially gathered since the home closed in 1959. The event is open to the public. For more information, contact the museum at 617-796-1450. For more on the exhibit, visit Viser can be reached at