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Burton Blatt Papers

An inventory of his papers at the Syracuse University Archives

Sponsor: The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from the Burton Blatt Institute.

Finding aid created by: Brian Burtt and Maude Falcone
Date: 2006


Burton BlattBurton Blatt (1927-1985), a renowned figure in the field of special education, passionately advocated for the rights of people with cognitive disabilities. During his time at Syracuse University, he promoted the causes most important to him through his work as an educator, administrator, and author.

Blatt was born in New York City in 1927, and he returned home to attend New York University after serving two years with the US Navy in the Philippines (1945-1946). After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1949, he took his first job as an educator, teaching English and social studies at a public middle school in Brooklyn. During this time, he was also working towards a Master of Arts degree at the Teachers College of Columbia University. He completed his master's in 1950, and with it, he took a more specialized teaching position with the New York City Board of Education, this time teaching children with cognitive disabilities.

As Blatt gained experience teaching children with disabilities, his interest in improving services for people with disabilities grew and evolved. In 1950, while teaching, he began work towards a doctoral degree in special education. During this busy time in his professional life, he was also beginning a new family life. In 1951 he married Ethel Draizen, another New York City native, and the two of them had their first of three sons a few years later. By 1955, Blatt was ready to return to academia, turning his attentions away from an individual special education classroom in the hope of making a larger impact in other roles.

In 1956, Blatt went to Pennsylvania State University as a graduate scholar, where he was awarded a Doctor of Education degree the following year. After receiving this degree, he was asked to join Southern Connecticut State College as both an associate professor and the Coordinator of Special Education. Eager to act upon his vision of improving education services, he co-founded a psycho-educational clinic at Southern Connecticut State College in 1957. Recognizing Blatt's talent, vision, and dedication, the college promoted him in both of his roles in 1959, making him a full professor and the chair of the newly-formed Department of Special Education.

Ready to make similar contributions to a new institution, Blatt joined Boston University as a professor and the chair of the Special Education Department in 1961. Within the same year he joined the faculty, he founded a psycho-educational clinic at Boston University, modeled after the successful clinic in Connecticut. He remained at Boston University for eight years, during which time he began to publish more frequently. It was in these early years of what would be a prolific publishing career that Blatt published his most influential work.

Christmas in Purgatory coverChristmas in Purgatory, published in 1966, is a photographic essay documenting the inhumane, abusive conditions found in state institutions for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Blatt visited several institutions, where he often found a sympathetic staff member who would, at great personal risk, agree to show him the most shameful inner wards of the institution. Accompanying him on these institutional visits was Fred Kaplan, a freelance photographer and close personal friend. Kaplan affixed a hidden camera to his belt, and with it he captured hundreds of disturbing photographs that immediately caught the attention of people around the world. President Johnson, who had recently established the President's Committee on Mental Retardation, personally called Blatt to ask for extra copies of the book, and Christmas in Purgatory reportedly influenced the committee's work. Amidst the uproar caused by the book's publication, Blatt faced great pressure to name the institutions depicted, but he refused. The names of the institutions pictured do not matter, Blatt asserted, as one would find conditions that were similar, or worse, in institutions all over the United States.

In 1969, Blatt concluded his time at Boston University to take similar positions at Syracuse University. As in Boston, he was brought on as both a professor and the director of the Division of Special Education and Rehabilitation at Syracuse University's School of Education. Upon joining Syracuse University, he swiftly established a psycho-educational clinic there, as he had done twice before. His arrival to SU also would be welcomed with some special fanfare. In 1970, in honor of its centennial, Syracuse University named six distinguished Centennial Professors who were meant to stand as leaders in their respective fields. Blatt, a fresh arrival to the University, was chosen as one of them.

Blatt wasted no time in working to live up to Syracuse University's high expectations. In 1971, he founded the Center on Human Policy, a Syracuse University research and advocacy organization that aimed to promote the most pressing causes for people with disabilities, namely deinstitutionalization. Interest in the Center, which Blatt guided as its first director, was immediate. Christmas in Purgatory's harrowing exposure of the conditions of state institutions stirred new interest in the movement for deinstitutionalization. Blatt, a fervent leader of the movement, sought to replace inhumane institutions with humanistic services that could support people with cognitive disabilities to become participatory members of a better society.

The growing momentum of the deinstitutionalization movement drove the Center on Human Policy's early efforts. The Center focused on developing alternatives to institutionalization, researching and publicizing injustices faced by people with disabilities, organizing legal services, and promoting community education on related issues. The Center on Human Policy endured over the decades that followed and grew into The Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies. As it evolved, the Center has expanded its scope, its network of collaborators, and its methods for achieving progress. Though much has changed, the guiding philosophy remains the same: to promote and develop an inclusive society that values and supports the participation of people with disabilities.

Blast's swift and dramatic contributions to Syracuse University were widely appreciated, and in recognition of his passionate leadership, forward-thinking vision, and administrative skill, the School of Education named him dean in 1976. At the time of his appointment, the School was facing significant challenges. In the 1940s, the School of Education underwent significant reforms that sought to broaden the existing program's narrow focus. Though these changes were greatly successful at the time, over the following decades, the School became overly generalized in its approach to the ever-evolving field of education. Blatt immediately initiated the most significant reforms to the School of Education in the previous 30 years, breaking the School into four major divisions: Study and Teaching, Educational Foundations, Educational Development and Administrative Studies, and (of particular interest to Blatt) Special Education and Rehabilitation. The School of Education had founded a leading, progressive Special Education program in 1946, but this, too, was in need of innovative changes. Blatt was just the person to make the program a superior model once again.

Burton BlattIn addition to his administrative and educational duties at Syracuse University, Blatt was also taking on significant responsibilities elsewhere. In 1976, he was selected as the national president of the American Association on Mental Deficiency, and in 1978, he served as the president of the Syracuse Development Center. He was committed to this kind of organizational service throughout his career, serving as president, coordinator, or consultant to numerous national and local organizations. He also gave his time to acting as an expert witness in dozens of state and federal trials, traveling as a guest speaker, and working on many government appointment councils and committees. For this work, he received extensive recognition. In 1978, he was given an award by the New York State Association of Teachers of the Handicapped for his work, and he had received several similar awards in Massachusetts and Connecticut in years prior.

Despite his many responsibilities, Blatt always found time to write. It was said that he wrote every day, and that work turned into hundreds of publications, including articles, columns, reviews, reports, and books. After the influential publication of Christmas in Purgatory in 1966, Blatt's next few books focused on similar themes of institutional abuse. These included Exodus from Pandemonium: Human Abuse and a Reformation of Public Policy (1970), Souls in Extremis: An Anthology on Victims and Victimizers (1973), and Revolt of the Idiots: A Story (1976), a novel about a revolt in an institution. Institutions underwent significant reforms in the years that followed, but Blatt and colleagues concluded in 1979's The Family Papers: A Return to Purgatory that the institution, by its nature, remained an unworkable model. While continuing to advocate for deinstitutionalization into the 1980s, Blatt also began to write on other topics more frequently, such as special education. Some of his publications from this time include In and Out of the University: Essays on Higher and Special Education (1981) and In and Out of Books: Reviews and Other Polemics on Special Education (1984).

At the start of 1985, Blatt was still as active, involved, and invested in his work as ever. It came as a terrible shock to those who knew him when he died suddenly from illness on January 20, 1985 at 57 years old. Following his death, many people wrote letters to the publications that ran memorial articles and expressed their grief, praise for the great person they knew, and pledges to turn their sorrow into productive action.

Today, the spirit of Burton Blatt's work lives on through the Burton Blatt Institute, an organization that strives to advance the empowered participation of people with disabilities within our shared global society. Opening its first office at Syracuse University in November of 2005, the Burton Blatt Institute has since expanded to include offices in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Through policy research, the fostering of productive public-private dialogue, and other methods, the Burton Blatt Institute builds upon the compassionate, inspirational work to which Burton Blatt dedicated so much of his life.

Scope and Content Note

The Burton Blatt Papers contains a variety of materials dating from 1948 to 2006, though the bulk of the collection dates from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The collection has been divided into ten series:

The first series, titled Professional, consists of curricula vitae, appointment books, dissertation materials, hiring announcements, and other general materials related to Blatt's professional development.

Blatt with Special Class, 1951The Teaching series contains news clippings, course materials, course evaluations, correspondence, recorded seminars, and other items from his time teaching at K-12 schools, Southern Connecticut State University, Boston University, and Syracuse University.

The Research and publications series, the largest series in the collection, shows the extensive effort that went into Blatt's many written works. This series includes manuscripts, correspondence, research notes, and proofs from both his professional academic writing (in books, articles, reports, and other formats) and his literary writing (novels and poetry).

The Service series is another substantial and broad-reaching portion of the collection. It contains writings, correspondence, organizational reports, and committee proceedings from Blatt's time serving universities, national and local organizations, and state and federal governments. He served in many roles, including coordinator, consultant, editor, expert witness, and visiting lecturer, among others.

The Subject files series, which is small, includes handouts, brochures, and writings from assorted sources. The following series, News clippings, is a small grouping of clippings not closely related to other parts of the collection.

Blatt's interest in the writings and research of others is evident in the Other authors series, which collects many articles, books, and audiovisual materials produced by others.

The brief Citations of Burton Blatt series contains some examples of citations or discussions of Blatt's work in publications, newspapers and magazines, and other sources.

The Correspondence series is comprised of Blatt's general correspondence. This series organizes large amounts of correspondence into chronological and individual subseries. The chronological subseries dates from 1952 to 1984 (plus some posthumous letters), and the folders of correspondence with specific individuals includes exchanges with some of the people Blatt most admired, such as Seymour Sarason. Also included in this series are the numerous pieces of correspondence Blatt received in response to his article, "The Tragedy and Hope of Retarded Children," published in Look magazine on October 31, 1967.

The Burton Blatt Papers contains only a small series of Personal materials, though in life, Blatt held his family to be what he valued most. This series consists of a few assorted papers related to Blatt's family, his religious life, and his memorial service.


Access Restrictions:

Please note that the collection is housed off-site, and advance notice is required to allow time to have the materials brought to the Reading Room on campus.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

In 2006, the Archives acquired permission from The Center on Human Policy to digitally reprint the photographs from Blatt's influential photographic essay, Christmas in Purgatory. All requests for use of images from the book should be addressed to The Center on Human Policy, which holds the copyright.

Related Material

The Syracuse University Archives holds a faculty file, portrait file, and clipping files on Burton Blatt. Additionally, the Archives holds the School of Education Office of the Dean Collection, which includes Blatt's faculty personnel files and subject files from his time as dean of the School of Education.

Selected Search Terms


Blatt, Burton, 1927-1985.
Syracuse University -- History.
Syracuse University.
Syracuse University. -- Center on Human Policy.
Syracuse University. -- School of Education.

Associated Titles

Christmas in Purgatory.


Children with mental disabilities -- Education.
Special education.
College teachers.
Higher education.

Types of Material

Compact discs.
Sound recordings.
Writings (documents)

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Burton Blatt Papers,
University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

The Syracuse University Archives began receiving some of Burton Blatt's papers less than a month after his death. On February 6, 1985, Ethel Blatt donated the first installment of her late husband's papers. She would donate more in the following weeks. In May of 1985, a colleague of Blatt's, Louis Heifetz, Associate Professor of Special Education at the time, also made a donation to the papers.

Processing Information

The Burton Blatt Papers were processed by Brian Burtt and Maude Falcone in the summer of 2006. The extensive project was made possible through generous funding from the newly-formed Burton Blatt Institute.

Burtt and Falcone faced the challenge of taking 60 boxes of relatively loose materials and organizing them into an accessible, safely-preserved collection within a very limited amount of time. They first had to create an original organizational schema for the collection. To outline such an extensive and broad set of resources, they attempted to take into account some of the materials' loose original order, some areas of interest highlighted by the Burton Blatt Institute, and the Archives' existing rudimentary inventory of the Burton Blatt Papers.

With the organization of the collection established, Burtt and Falcone put all of the materials in new acid-free folders and boxes. After processing, the Burton Blatt Papers spanned over 120 archival boxes. The collection, however, was no longer strictly contained to what is in the boxes. One of the most important things accomplished in this processing project was the digitization of hundreds of resources from the collection, including writings, photographs, and audiovisual materials. These efforts made many of Blatt's works widely accessible for the first time.

The finding aid Burtt and Falcone created was put online in 2006 with the help of Elwin Yerdon, who worked on web content for the Burton Blatt Papers. The original finding aid was converted to EAD in 2013 by Sean Molinaro, who also did some additional processing.


Original order was maintained for most of the collection. Some materials are in alphabetical or chronological order.

Table of Contents



Research and publications


Subject files

News clippings

Other authors

Citations of Burton Blatt