Posted by Juliana Szucs on September 18, 2009 in Collections

I received the following question this week and thought I’d share what I found here on the blog.

My husband’s grandmother died in Central Islip State Hospital in New York City in 1925. The hospital is now closed and the records apparently have been move to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. We would like to get more information about her and possibly a picture of her through the records that they have there. What is the best way to retrieve those records? They appear to be very protective of the patients’ information even though my husband is related directly to her.

Does anyone have any suggestions?

Linda Blanchard

Because of privacy restrictions, hospital records can be difficult to access. We’ve tried unsuccessfully to access the records of a family member, so I can understand your frustration. Most of the initial research I did on the Central Islip State Hospital turned up the same references to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, but I was thinking that since it was a state hospital, you might have luck searching at the New York State Archives.

I searched the online catalog on the New York State Archives website for Central Islip State Hospital. (To access the catalog, (click on the link to “Online Catalog” in the black navigation tabs.) That search brought up five hits, including one for Medical inspectors’ notes of visitation of state hospitals and private institutions, 1915-1939 (with gaps) from the New York (State) Dept. of Mental Hygiene. The catalog entry states that this collection includes,

“Narrative notes include date and time of arrival; professional staff on duty; list of staff vacancies, patient census statistics; notes on new admissions; discharges; deaths; and special interviews with patients about complaints regarding care and treatment, accidents, and injuries. They also provide remarks on food and recent improvements and repairs to buildings and grounds. Notes on patients include lists of patients to be examined by the inspector, ward, name of patient, admission date, age, duration before admission, diagnosis, and memorandum notes.”

These records are also restricted for privacy reasons, but perhaps with proof of your husband’s relationship to the patient, you’ll have better luck with the State Archives than you did with the hospital.

Browsing down to the subject index on that collection, I selected Psychiatric hospital patients New York (State) and there are 48 collections related to psychiatric hospitals in New York.

Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghosts, a book about his search for information about his mother’s sister who spent her adult life in Eloise Hospital outside of Detroit.  I plugged Eloise Hospital Detroit into a search engine and found this site on Polish Ancestry, that has obtained records from that institution, so for those looking for the records of institutionalized family members, you may have better luck.

You might also want to look into court records. There may have been guardianship or probate records created for your husband’s grandmother. Mr. Luxenberg includes several court records examples on the website for his book.

You may have seen some of these resources that reference the Central Islip State Hospital, but there are some interesting websites about the hospital with images.

Central Islip Psychiatric Center
Photos, history, virtual tours, and maps.

Opacity Abandoned Photography: Central Islip State Hospital
Photos of remaining buildings and historical background.

For those with relatives who were in Ontario, Canada asylums, the Archives of Ontario has an online exhibit on Psychiatric Hospital Records.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Anne Myers

    Very interesting. I’m facing stone walls around Danville State Hospital in PA from the late 1800’s without much luck. I’ll see if I can extrapolate these ideas to PA and actually find something.

  2. Erin Lacey

    I’m in the midst of trying to obtain records from the Elgin Mental Health Center in Illinois regarding my husband’s great-grandmother. The health center says the records are sealed, period. The only way around it appears to be a court order to release the records, which we are currently pursuing. It’s been very difficult to make any progress, particularly since we are out of state and are having to conduct the entire process via phone and mail. Thanks for these tips. I’ll see if they can help us get around the courts somehow.

  3. joan cress

    i’m facing a stone walls in PA with the johnstown flood. My grandfather’s family came from there. he and his sister was in an orphanage in town of homestead PA.
    any help you can give me thanks

  4. Cheryl Whittle

    I was looking for information on my great grandfather and my grandmother related to stays in Central State Hospital in Williamsburg, VA; as well as Western State Hospital in the western part of Virginia for another great grandfather.
    I was able to send a letter to them showing my relationship and a copy of my direct lineage to the patient; and a copy of the patient’s death certificate. I was able to receive some records from these sites some years ago.
    The first thing I did was to contact the medical records department, explain what I was looking for and ask them what they needed from me.
    It is my understanding that anything before the HIPPA rules went into effect should not be covered under the strict rules we comply with now. However, as time has passed since I was told that, it is possible that most places are abiding by these rules on all records in order to protect themselves from any liability for which they may be held responsible.
    Best wishes on your search!

  5. Cheryl Whittle

    As far as adoption laws go, they are very strict in some states. I have done several searches for people who have requested my assistance. I have had “NO” success in the states of Missouri even though the people trying to find out information are grandchildren.
    I believe this is sad, since so many people want to know more about their ancestors and possible health problems they may be subject to; but again you are told you must have a court order, and it must be pretty hard to get and very time consuming. Again, best wishes on your searches.

  6. Wendy

    Interesting. Trying to help a friend find her former husbands family for her son. This might open a door way for me. Thanks.

  7. I have asked you not to contact me anymore. Take me off of your list. I had the 14 day trial and I don’t want your service. I can’t afford you. You say you offer a free service but you don’t. Don’t contact me again. Dyanne Henderson

  8. Ken

    About 20 years ago, I received copies of medical records of some relatives from Fergus Falls State Hospital in MN, just before some of the records were “archived”, probably by shredding. This was for folks hospitalized around 1900. They even sent me the pictures from the patient files! and the files answered some interesting questions.

    I guess times have changed.

  9. Hi all… This is Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghosts, mentioned in Juliana’s introduction on this topic. Andy, in comment #3, said: “This is absurd! The dead have no legal right to privacy — or at least they shouldn’t have. It may surprise many people that in the medical records arena, recent privacy laws HAVE conferred rights on the dead. Even family members of the long deceased face obstacles to getting access to medical records, particularly mental health records. The trend toward greater privacy (even as technology makes privacy more difficult) has come at the expense of history and other forms of legitimate access. I’ve written about this conflict in my blog at, for those who are interested.

  10. Karen Newhoff

    I’m have similar problems with Wartburg Farm School in Mt Vernon NY. Callled, wrote, emailed numerous times and can’t get info about my father and his sister from the early 30’s

  11. Lisa Ziegler

    I do find it odd you can’t access deceased peoples medical records but you can get their social security numbers

  12. donna huffer

    I have been trying to locate records from Galinger Hospital in DC.It changed its name to washington General and then just closed all together.Haven’t been able to locate any records.My sister died there either in 42-43-44.They also took care of the parents lived out of state.Both my parents are deceased.Mom last the age of 90.Would love to find info on my baby sister if there is any to find.I was the baby and I am 62 now and hoped to close this issue before my mom passed but did not get closer on it .Any suggestions as to how I can find any info on this?I had given up on it but their have been other people looking for the same info on Ancestry.
    Thank you
    Donna Huffer

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