The Age of The Asylum: Psychology’s Golden Age Part II

My renewed interest in turn of the century psychology has brought some more fascinating primary sources from that era as well as modern insights into the period. Here are some other interesting reads!

Alzheimer: The Life of a Physician and the Career of a Disease

This book, by Konrad Maurer is a biography of Alois Alzheimer, the psychologist who discovered Alzheimer’s disease, also mentioned in the previous post. The book goes into much more detail than one usually finds online about him, and outlines his youth in medical school, to his appointment in an asylum called the “Irrenschloss” in Frankfurt where Auguste Deter was, to his further career in Munich and Breslau. My favorite parts are when the author talks about the relationship between Alzheimer and his boss Emil Sioli in the asylum at Frankfurt, as the two had a deep professional respect for one another, and when it was mentioned Alzheimer lived within hearing distance of an asylum near Munich! Here’s a cool excerpt from the book on Alzheimer’s remembrance of the “Irrenschloss”

The institution accommodated only the most severely mentally ill. One had to carry out one’s rounds with powerful orderlies covering one’s back, and it was sometimes necessary to fend off the attacks of irritated patients oneself. Everywhere, cursing, spitting patients sat around in the corners, repulsive in their manner, peculiar in their dress, and completely inaccessible to the doctor. The most unclean habits were quite common. Some patients appeared with pockets filled with all sorts of waste, others had masses of paper and writing materials hidden all over the place in big packets under their arms. When one had to finally follow the rules of hygiene and do something to get rid of the filth, one could not proceed without resistance and loud cries. (Page 55)

10 Days in a Madhouse

10 Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly, was written in 1887 and detailed many of the abuses in insane asylums of the time. Nellie Bly was an undercover journalist, and was assigned to go undercover to do an exposé on the Blackwell’s Island Asylum in New York.  To do that, she feigned madness at a home for working women, so they would get her committed. However, once she was inside, she would drop her role as a madwoman, and act normally as in everyday life. She wanted to see if they would find out if she was sane. Ultimately, she found out how the asylum had cruel nurses and not enough food and clothes, as well as barbaric treatments. When she was finally released, her article on the asylum prompted a formal investigation into the allegations she made, and made a change for the better as the committee approved more funds to improve the asylum. The experiment also shed light on the accuracy of many of the doctor’s judgments as to who is sane and who isn’t, as she was clearly sane, but no one believed her. In the book, there are many amusing illustrations! Here are some of my favorites!

Image result for 10 days in a madhouse illustrations  Related image

(I just love the captions!)

How to Care for The Insane

How to Care for The Insane was written by Dr. William Granger in 1886 as a manual for attendants in asylums. What is so remarkable about this book, other than it is a primary source, is its astonishingly modern attitude towards patient care! Dr. Granger emphasizes the need for humane care and using the least restrictive options. He says that an attendant must be patient and endure things like being insulted and spit at with patience and professionalism, not giving into one’s temper. Even with violent patients, he stresses the need, while taking precautions, to use the least force necessary to control the situation.

In using force in the care of violent patients, it should always be done as gently as possible, and struggling should be avoided; he should never be choked or kicked, receive a blow, or be knocked down; the arms should never be twisted, nor a towel held over the mouth, but if the patient persists in spitting it may be held in front of the face.Care must always be used not to injure a patient while exercising necessary control. In the violence of a patient innocent injuries are sometimes received. The attendant is excusable if he can show that he used necessary force only, without malice. (Page 47-48)

This other passage shows the strikingly modern views that Dr. Granger had in running an asylum:

Attendants must first learn that patients are not to be treated merely as a ward full of people to be kept in order, to be clothed, fed, and put to bed, but that the peculiarities of each patient are to be studied, and that it is their duty to know thoroughly the wants, and condition of each case, and how best to care for and control it. The better knowledge an attendant has of the individual, the better he can care for a ward full of individuals. The persons who are under our care are always to be considered as patients, and it must be remembered that these sick people are sent away from their homes and given over to us, though strangers, because it is supposed that we can do better by them than their friends are able to do. Their position is one of helplessness and dependence upon those who are placed in charge, and we are properly held responsible by the friends and the public, for a judicious exercise of the power and influence we possess over them. (Page 30)

I think this passage really reflects a kind, compassionate doctor who wouldn’t be out of place in a modern hospital today! While many institutions were rife with abuse and corruption, this goes to show that there were people with a warm compassion who truly cared for their patients too. It astonishes me that such a book was written all the way back in 1886! This wouldn’t be out of place in a 21st century book on the subject! It is common to think of that era in psychology as cold and unfeeling, but many people did have a genuine passion for the welfare of the insane and feeble minded, even if some of their methods and philosophies didn’t line up with ours. Who knows 100 years from now if our views will change yet again too? Also, the section on emergencies was amusing, covering things from a slit throat, to eating glass, suicide attempts to even setting things on fire! I can only assume the author had some personal experience in that department!

(Bonus Source) Restoring Perspective: Life and Treatment at The London Asylum

This website is about an asylum in Canada, not England! It details much of asylum life and details about the staff who worked there. The asylum ran up into the 1950’s! One of the most interesting tidbits was how intertwined the employee’s personal and professional lives were, since they mostly lived onsite! Many described it as being like a big family. Indeed, one of the superintendent’s daughters got married on the asylum grounds! This is a very cool website to check out!

Overall, many criticize this “era of asylums” as being the stone ages of psychology, with offensive language and barbaric treatment, but it is much more complex than that simplistic picture. sure, there was much abuse in the system, but as many sources reveal, there were passionate people dedicated to fighting the abuse and making a more humane and compassionate system. Before, conditions were much much worse, and asylums were a new more humane way to deal with the mentally ill. Much of the terminology such as “idiot”, “imbecile”, “lunatic”, “moron”, etc. are now offensive today, but back then, those were the proper medical terminology and not considered offensive. Even more recently, one must keep up with the ever changing terms for “mentally ill”! Many theories and diseases are outdated too (think dementia praecox), however, they were also cutting edge research. We often think that we are in a new glorious age of enlightenment, while forgetting the impact of the contributions of those who came before us. Our progress rests on their shoulders. While we’re quick to judge their past attitudes and actions, many did it our of the same motive as we have, to understand and cure mental illness. That bygone era was truly a golden age of discoveries and breakthroughs in mental health care.


About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
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