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Rare Printed Works on the History of Psychiatry

Part 1: Sources from the Hunter Collection, Cambridge University Library

Editorial Introduction

They said I was mad; and I said they were mad; damn them, they outvoted me.
Nathaniel Lee

What is madness? Does it primarily concern the individual or the institution, politics or ideology, therapy or torture or madhouses, madmen and mad doctors? Was the female malady a male invention? Where do the boundaries lie between the historical transitions from containment of the mad to their moral management? From when should we plot the rise of psychiatry? How accurate are assumptions that the Georgian madhouses were places of “shit, straw and stench”1 or that the incarceration of the insane reached epidemic proportions during the nineteenth century? Issues arising in regard to the “trade in lunacy” concern the confinement of those who were actually sane and the debate about whether to abandon the whip, the chain and the straitjacket in favour of “mind-forged manacles”2. The history of madness is a kaleidoscope for these questions and more. Ideally the starting point for such enquiries is direct consultation with the texts that have formed the history of madness.

The inspiration for this project was the anthology of English texts from 1535 to 1860 selected by Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine in their Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry (1982). The Hunter collection at Cambridge University Library yielded a substantial number of primary sources along with the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of London and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Key texts such as Henry Monro, Remarks on Insanity: Its Nature and Treatment (1852) are presented here alongside lesser-known documents as in, for example, Richard Mead’s Of the Power and Influence of the Sun and Moon on Human Bodies and of the Diseases that Arise from Thence (1712). These reels of microfilm are now available to researchers in what promises to be the most extensive resource of primary material ever compiled in the history of psychiatry. In view of this claim, it may seem contrary to have excluded the contribution of the figure who has dominated the field, Sigmund Freud. The reason at the present time is principally because his writings are so widely available elsewhere.

Canonical texts which helped shape the history of madness are Sir John Tuke’s A Plea for the Scientific Study of Insanity (1869) and Henry Maudsley’s Physiology and Pathology of the Mind (1867). These luminaries in the history of psychiatry are represented here alongside Thomas Beddoes, Philippe Pinel, Jean Charcot and Manfred Bleuler. By way of contrast, an empirical approach to the disturbed, deranged or simply different is found in Adam Addison’s urinary investigations, which resulted in the publication of a treatise On the Urine of the Insane (1865). The most famous and distinctive urine in history has been that of King George III. Its purple hue was symptomatic of porphyria, a hereditary disease which hardly warranted the strait-waistcoat and blisters administered by his physician, Dr Francis Willis. Included in this series are accounts of the monarch’s madness gleaned from the Hunter collection.

Treatises of Georgian hypochondria through to documents on Victorian hysteria span the changes in fashion, gender and class which influenced perceptions of madness. As we will see, the demonology of the Stuarts transmuted into the blue devils of Georgian dyspepsia. Humourist medicine shifted to a more anatomised physic concentrating on organs such as the spleen, which in turn gave way to the more nebulous vapours and the nerves.

The treatment of neurasthenia in subjects ranging from First World War shell-shocked soldiers to Victorian middle-class women is covered in Grafton Elliot Smith’s Shell Shock and its Lessons (1917) and S. Weir Mitchell’s Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System, Especially in Women (1881). Mitchell was most well known for his Rest Cure, with which he treated Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who fictionalised her experiences in the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). Female hysterics fared less well in the hands of cliteridectomist Isaac Baker Brown, who was later discredited and expelled from the Obstetrical Society in 1867. Another physician passing judgement on his fellow practitioners is John Monro, the author of Remarks on Dr Battie’s Treatise on Madness (1758).

Indicative of the byways diverging from the mainstream of mental medicine is The Climactic Insanity in the Male (1865) by Francis Skae, Henry Wentworth Acland’s Feigned Insanity, how … usually simulated and how best detected (1844) and John Millar’s Hints on Insanity (1861). The utterances of the mad pour forth from narratives such as A Narration of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girl, Strangely Molested by Evil Spirits and their Instruments (1775). Not only are the incarcerated given voice but so are their incarcerators. The reminiscences of madhouse keepers and physicians are articulated in such accounts as the disarmingly entitled Mad Doctors by One of Them (1890) and The Mysteries of the Mad House; or Annals of Bedlam (circa 1860) written by a discharged officer of twenty years experience. Guidelines to nurses working at the York Retreat, led by the tea-merchant William Tuke, have also been made available along with Catherine Cappe’s advice to ladies visiting the female wards of lunatic asylums in 1816.

The mad-house or asylum may be read as a text upon which has been inscribed changing views of madness. Bethlem hospital or Bedlam has appeared as the leading character, often as a villainous protagonist within fictional and non-fictional works as in A Description of Bedlam. With an account of its present inhabitants. Taken from their own mouths, and published for universal instruction and entertainment. During the time that this was written in 1722, the public had access to Bedlam where they expected to be entertained by resident lunatics. The “mad poet” Christopher Smart in his asylum poetry refers to such tourist traffic, which resulted in him being poked by harping-irons. Smart was later to spend a year at St Luke’s Hospital for the Insane under the humane regime of Dr William Battie, who was opposed to the “impertinent curiosity” of such sightseers. Similarly, the York Retreat, an establishment founded by some York Quakers, provided inmates with a haven of moral therapy. An edition of the Poems of John Clare’s Madness has also been included.

Even the fictional character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was used by doctors such as John Connolly as a template for insane traits of character. Madness was not only an inspiration for drama, as illustrated by The Lunatic: A Comedy (1705), written by the obviously pseudonymous Francis Telltroth; but its theatricality was embodied by Charcot’s performing hysterics in the Parisian Salpêtrière. These tableaux of the insane, held in stasis by the age of the photograph provided a prototype for the aspiring mad as well as demonstrating the difficulty of separating madness from its representations.

So many of the discourses concerning the so-called “unhinged” hinge on labelling. When mental illnesses disappear off the psychiatric map, could it be because they have been relabelled? For instance, after the nineteenth century, there was no sign of the Green Sickness, which had afflicted legions of young girls. It may have been subsumed under other labels such as hysteria or anorexia nervosa. The arbitrary way of packaging certain human conditions, impacts upon the question of whether to drug or not to drug the supposedly mentally ill, which became increasingly more pressing. Medication for the insane is considered by Henry Maudsley in his discussion of the therapeutic use of opium. But the problem of madness, however much it is medicated and managed, is primarily one of identification. However reassuring it can be to organise the disordered and irrational under rational headings and ordered taxonomies, one can end up agreeing with Thomas Beddoes that “Madness …means almost everything and nothing”. One particularly virulent and persistent form of mania was identified by Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin in his Bibliomania; or Book Madness subtitled A Bibliographical Romance in 6 parts (1811), where he warns against those suffering from this “fatal disease”. This didactic prophylaxis, being in the form of a book was in danger of aggravating the very condition that it set out to cure, and appropriately inspired the poem, “The Bibliomania” (1809) by J. Ferrier, who wrote:

What wild desires, shall restless torments seize,
The helpless man, who feels the book-disease?

As such it constitutes a salutary warning to bibliophiles. For all those researchers, cultural and social historians, students and scholars of the history of medicine, humanities, social science, women and gender studies, who are likely to make use of this collection, you have been warned!

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

University of the West of England, Bristol

January 2008


1 Andrew T. Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 56.

2 William Blake, “London” from Songs of Experience (1794).




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