Magazine On-line [spring 2010]
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Around campus

Transylvania gets inside look at the historically important U.S. Narcotic Farm

Narcotic FarmThe imposing art deco-influenced complex of buildings sits behind a gated entrance at the end of a long, winding road atop a gently rising hill on the outskirts of north Lexington. Easily seen by passersby on the highway, the tantalizingly visible yet inaccessible landmark has kept most of its secrets from the general populace for 75 years.

Constructed by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1935 and named the United States Narcotic Farm, this innovative, idealistic prison and hospital served inmates and patients alike in the nation’s first concerted effort to deal with the problem of drug addiction. When its laboratories and treatment facilities ceased operations in 1975, the institution had become the nation’s—and the world’s—most important source of research findings and therapy concepts related to drug addiction.

“The Lexington Narcotic Farm has an incredible importance in the history of science and in how we treat addicts in the United States,” said Nancy Campbell, a professor in the department of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Campbell, along with journalist JP Olsen and filmmaker Luke Walden, treated the Transylvania community to an inside look at the history of the institution in November. They were on campus for two days as part of psychology professor Meg Upchurch’s Bingham-Young Professorship titled Drugged America, with additional sponsorship by Transylvania’s fine arts division.

The three offered their collaborative insights in a performance presentation in Carrick Theater that included narration, screen images, and music from a live jazz trio. They also screened the one-hour PBS documentary film The Narcotic Farm, by Olsen and Walden, which included an interview with Campbell. All three also collaborated on The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts, a 150-page book of photos, images, and text.

“Before the recent era of the war on drugs—the ‘Just Say No’ campaign of the Reagan administration—the pre-history of everything about drug policy and treatment in America occurred in Lexington,” Walden said. “Today, the federal drug effort is distributed all over the country, but back then it was concentrated in one site, in this one building in Lexington.”

For a period of 40 years, scientists and therapists treated and experimented on residents of the Narcotic Farm, who came to Lexington from cities and towns east of the Mississippi River. The population of up to 1,500 included prisoners as well as addicts who had voluntarily committed themselves for treatment. The experimental exercises included agonizing withdrawal experiences and became highly controversial. The voluntary program actually gave subjects drugs for their own use in exchange for their cooperation.

During the middle decades of the 20th century, the existence of the Narcotic Farm was generally well known, so much so that when Frank Sinatra’s drug-addicted character Frankie Machine in the 1955 Hollywood film The Man With the Golden Arm says he’s been to “Lexington,” the audience understood the reference.

Since drug use was prevalent among jazz musicians in urban centers such as Chicago and New York, the Narcotic Farm hosted famous inmates and could boast of one of the best house bands in the country. Chet Baker, Elvin Jones, Sonny Rollins, and Ray Charles are among the luminaries of music who spent time in Lexington and formed ensembles in their free time.

Lexington lobbied against many other cities to have the facility located here. The government’s idea was to locate it in a rural area, based on a 19th-century ideal of the healing properties of the pastoral landscape, Walden said. Lexington’s lush bluegrass farmland was ideal for this purpose.

“The country is cleaner and fresher, and values were seen as being more wholesome than in the urban ghettos where this social contagion of drug addiction was being spread,” Walden said. “The facility itself is designed to bring the fresh air smell into the courtyards and rooms.”

The Narcotic Farm is noteworthy, Walden said, for taking an enlightened view toward drug addiction.

“When the facility opened in 1935, there was already this idea that drug addiction was a disease, something that should be treated medically and compassionately, rather than just locking people up,” Walden said. “This was the founding precept behind the Narcotic Farm.”

After years of research and work on their film and book projects, Campbell, Olsen, and Walden were eager to finally tour the inside of the Narcotic Farm for the first time during their Lexington visit.

“We were given a three-hour tour, and it was just amazing,” Campbell said. “I walked into the courtyard and felt the tranquility of the architecture. We had spent years and years on our study of the Narcotic Farm, and to experience in reality what we had seen hundreds of photos of was one of the most moving experiences of my life. And the whole experience at Transylvania was so great—we enjoyed every minute of it.”

To view historic black and white photos of the Narcotic Farm, click here.

To visit the Narcotic Farm Web site, click here.

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