Sunday, July 29, 2012

F is for Frankie Ujlaky and a Forgotten Epidemic

Young Frankie Ujlaki and his family lived in
New York's Lower East Side when this
photograph was taken about 1915

I shared the story of Frankie Ujlaki's early life in my article F is for Frankie: Beloved Firstborn, 1906 here at 100 Years in America. Frankie's young life was off to a good start, but tragedy struck in his teen years that altered the path of his life in a dramatic and devastating way. Here is the rest of his story.

At age fourteen, Frankie was big brother to three younger sisters. Two more siblings joined the family in the 1920's: another sister, Ethel, and a younger brother, Kasmir.

In 1921, when Frankie was fifteen, the family left Manhattan and made a move to Staten Island into a home built on Nugent Avenue by father Frank with the help of friends.

Frankie had gained an interest in drawing and found success as a young artist, even creating business cards for his work as a sign painter. These are some of his early drawings:

A postcard with some sketches drawn by Frankie Ujlaki

The portrait below was taken about 1924. This is a very special photograph for several reasons. It is the only portrait I have seen of the entire family together, and it was taken shortly before Frankie's life changed dramatically.

Frank and Helen Ujlaky about 1924 with their six children:
Wilma, Ethel, Mitzi, Frankie, Kasmir and Helene
(They had changed the spelling of their surname)

According to one of Frankie's siblings, May 1925 was the month they lost Frankie - not to death, but to something just as sorrowful, and perhaps even more difficult to accept.

It was in May 1925 that Frankie turned 19. It was also that month that he was hospitalized. He had contracted Encephalitis Lethargica, a rare disease of the brain (sometimes also known as epidemic encephalitis or "Sleepy Sickness", not to be confused with "Sleeping Sickness"). This condition caused various affects in different patients, many of them being left in a statue-like condition: not able to speak or move. The disease, however, was not always easy to diagnose. According to Dr. Smith Jelliffe, an American neurologist in practice during the epidemic, "There is probably no other acute infectious disease which gives rise to, or results in so many diversified types of mental disturbance."

This 1920 New York Times article is entitled
"New Sleeping Disease Mystifies Londoners"
(Click to enlarge)
Encephalitis Lethargica spread throughout the world slowly beginning about 1917, its seriousness becoming apparent to the medical community just as the world was reeling from the crises of World War I and the 1918 Flu. The medical profession scrambled to determine the origin of this epidemic encephalitis and find its cure. Municipal health departments worked to warn the population in hopes of preventing further outbreaks.
"SLEEPING SICKNESS WARNING SENT OUT: In an effort to prevent an increase in the number of cases of encephalitis lethargica, commonly known as 'sleeping sickness,' and other respiratory diseases. Dr. Frank J. Monaghan, Health Commissioner, issued a warning yesterday against careless coughing, sneezing and spitting." - New York Times, March 11, 1923
By 1927, doctors still had few answers about this disease, yet the "Sleepy Sickness" epidemic was coming to an end.

In her 2010 book, Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries, Molly Caldwell Crosby, writes:
"This epidemic would strike as many as 5 million people throughout the world, killing a third of them and leaving thousands more institutionalized for the rest of their lives. The victims fell into a long sleep—for weeks or even months. Many never awoke. But the world soon learned that dying was not the tragedy of this disease; surviving it was."
Crosby writes that physicians' estimates indicate that a third of victims of this disease died from it, a third recovered, and another third developed permanent disabilities. I am not sure what type of recovery Frankie Ujlaki ever made from Encephalitis Lethargica. I do know that he never returned home to his family. In May 1925, he was hospitalized at the age of 19, more than likely within the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward's Island. The 1930 U.S. Census lists him there as an "inmate".

Manhattan State Hospital, Ward's Island in the 1970s
From the 1920 Handbook of the State Hospital Commission and Hospitals for the Insane come these statistics for Manhattan State Hospital on Ward's Island:
  • Certified capacity: 5,230
  • Number of patients: 6,045 (2,584 men and 3,461 women)
Even if the New York health department and hospital staff had the best of intentions, these crowded conditions must have made caring for these patients an impossible task. This is the world that became Frankie Ujlaky's life.

By about 1931 (according to his death certificate; at least by 1935 according to the 1940 U.S. Census), Frankie had been moved upstate into the Harlem Valley State Hospital in Dover, Dutchess County, New York. He would be attended by Dr. Charles Greenberg, who was the same age as Frankie, for over six of his eleven years there.

The 1940 U.S. Census indicates that Frank Ujlaky was a 29-year-old patient who had lived
at Harlem Valley State Hospital in Dutchess County, New York for at least five years.
He was actually 33 at the time of the census. (Click to enlarge image)

In 1936 Harlem Valley State Hospital was the site of the first demonstrations to doctors of insulin shock treatment, which would become commonly used throughout United States hospitals until the 1970s.

The empty Harlem Valley State Hospital today (photo thanks to Brian C.)
Frankie would spend the rest of his relatively short life institutionalized. He died at Harlem Valley in 1942 at the age of 36. His death certificate lists Pulmonary Tuberculosis as the cause of death.

Frankie Ujlaky was separated from his family for so many years, yet they remembered, loved and prayed for him throughout his hospitalization. I can only hope that he found comfort in happy memories of his early years with his loving family. Rest in peace, Frankie.

Frankie Ujlaky 1906-1942

More about Encephalitis Lethargica

For some reason, the early 20th century outbreak of epidemic encephalitis has fallen strangely out of the public consciousness. Molly Caldwell Crosby writes, "The 1916 outbreak of polio afflicted nine thousand people and went down in history as the most devastating polio epidemic in New York. By the time the epidemic encephalitis would suddenly and inexplicably disappear, it would infect at least five thousand New Yorkers, and it would not go down in history as anything at all." [Emphasis mine]

There has been surprisingly little written about Encephalitis Lethargica in the decades since this epidemic shocked the world of the early 20th century. We have very limited information about this illness, although a few theories have circulated as to its cause.

For further reading on the subject, I recommend Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby and Encephalitis Lethargica: During and After the Epidemic by Joel Vilensky PhD, both published in 2010.

More about Mental Institutions of the Early 20th Century

I understand that patient records for both Manhattan State Hospital and Harlem Valley State Hospital are inaccessible to researchers at this time. If you have any further information about access to these records, please post a comment or email me and I'll share the info with readers.

For an interesting look at some of the lives of patients within mental institutions during the early 20th century, see my article An Attic, Suitcases and a Window into a Hidden World.

This article was written as part of the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge.  Follow me here at 100 Years in America as I try to keep up with the challenge to work through the alphabet while writing my family history. I'm way behind getting started, but here goes!


  1. Wow. This most have taken a long time to put together. Great Story!

  2. Yes, Anne, it did take me awhile. Thanks for noticing! It was also a particularly heart-wrenching article to write. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. As Anne says, great story, but oh so tragic, but one that needed to be told, both for Frankie and for others who have been affected by the "Sleepy Sickness".


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