Research About People Who Lived at Pennhurst

Genealogical Research into the Lives of People Who Lived at Pennhurst

“History is something that happens to people”- Arnold Toynbee

Family genealogists regularly contact PMPA, looking for information about family members who may have been institutionalized at the Pennhurst State School and Hospital (later renamed the Pennhurst State Center). As we study the history of Pennhurst, it is critical for all of us to remember that the residents who lived, worked, and died in the institution were real people, who had personal histories, including families and communities that cared about them even if they did not care for them directly.

The PMPA does not hold any individual records. Such records are kept in the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and some are kept at the White Haven State Center in White Haven, PA, under an agreement between the state and Temple University.

Pennsylvania State Archives

Records of institutionalization are considered private medical information. In accordance with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws, access to these records is restricted. While these restrictions can be frustrating to family genealogists who are seeking to complete their family histories, these restrictions preserve the privacy of individuals who might have been denied such dignity during their time in the institution.

If you have a family member who was institutionalized at the Pennhurst State School & Hospital, here are some initial steps for your research.

  1. Collect as much information about your family member as possible: name, date of birth, address at the time of admission, date of admission (approximately), and date of death (if known).
  2. Contact the Pennsylvania State Archives reference department either by email ( or by phone ((717) 783-3281). Contacting the archive is an essential first step. The staff at the archive can tell you what information is available and the steps a family genealogist must take to access that information.
  3. Access to Pennsylvania State Archives institutional resident records is determined on a case-by-case basis.
  4. Please keep in mind the following Archives restrictions on accessing records:
    • If a former resident of Pennhurst is still alive, their information may only be released (a) directly to the former resident; (b) to the resident’s health care proxy or agent with medical power of attorney; or (c) an individual with a court order. Legal documentation must be shown.
    • If a former resident is deceased, access to some records (such as admission/discharge records) may be given if the family genealogist can show a copy of a death certificate or a published obituary. Information for getting a death certificate from the state of Pennsylvania can be found here. Again, please contact the state archives at the email address/phone number above; if a resident has been deceased less than 50 years, restrictions on access may apply.
    • If a former resident has been deceased for 50 or more years, all institutional records can be viewed if a family genealogist can present a copy of a death certificate or a published obituary to access patient information.
    • Resident records that are 75 years old or older can also be viewed by family genealogists and proof of death may not be required. However, it is best to confirm that documentation is not needed by contacting the state archives.

[Many thanks to Tyler Stump of the Pennsylvania State Archives for providing this information about accessing Pennhurst resident records.]


Another Source: the Pennhurst Longitudinal Study

All people who lived at Pennhurst in 1978 became part of the Pennhurst Longitudinal Study. They were tracked and visited, face to face, every year from 1978 to 1992. If you believe your relative was at Pennhurst in that year, there may be information available.

It may be a simple matter to find out if they are still living, and if so, contact their support & service provider agency to make direct contact. If they are no longer living, some parts of their stories will probably be available. For information about this option, contact Dr. James Conroy at to find out how to proceed.


[Many Thanks to Dee Katovitch, Syracuse University, for assembling these procedures.]