“Your very thankful inmate”

Gloucester AsylumIn a recent issue of Social History of Medicine, 21(2), Leonard Smith discovers the gives an account of the experiences of patients at an early county lunatic asylum. His research is based primarily on the letters of patients’ families to the medical superintendent:

Recent studies of the historical development of lunatic asylums have increasingly sought to gain access to the experiences and perspectives of patients and their families. Generally, historians have had to rely mainly on data extracted from admissions records or casebooks. With one or two notable exceptions, little material has survived emanating directly from patients. This article draws largely on a collection of correspondence from the Gloucester Asylum in the period 1827 to 1843. Most of the letters were written by patients’ relatives to the medical superintendent. They offer valuable insights into a range of issues—circumstances that led to admission; the quality of relationships between patients and their families; interactions between community and institution; perceptions of life in the asylum; the processes of recovery, discharge and after-care. It becomes clear that, rather than the asylum being a closed and isolated institution, there was ongoing dialogue between patients, relatives, and medical officers, both to exchange information and also to promote recovery, discharge, and re-settlement in the community.

As Smith highlights, the use of patient records, casebooks, and letters in asylum histories have become increasingly popular in recent years. For those interested in reading more on this topic, I’ve compiled a selection of accounts and histories:

Barfoot, M. & Beveridge, A. W. (1990). Madness at the crossroads: John Home’s letters from the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, 1886-87. Psychological Medicine, 20(2), p. 263-284.

de la Cour, L. (1997). ‘She thinks this is the Queen’s castle’: Women patients’ perceptions of an Ontario psychiatric hospital. Health & Place, 3(2), p. 131-141.

Gleming, E. B. & Fleming, A. (1893). Three years in a mad-house. Texas: Tyler.

Gilman, C. P. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper. New England Magazine.

Noll, S. (1994). Patient records as historical stories: The case of the Caswell Training School. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 68(3), p. 411-428.

Peterson, D. (1982). A mad people’s history of madness. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Porter, R. (1987). A social history of madness: Stories of the insane. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto collect primarily first-person records of Psychiatric Consumer/Survivors (also see their list of first-person writings).

Reaume, G. (1994). ‘Keep your labels off my mind!’ or ‘Now I am going to pretend I am craze but dont be a bit alarmed’: Psychiatric history from the patients’ perspectives. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 11(2), p. 397-424.

Reaume, G. (2000). Remembrance of patients past: Patient life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940.  Oxford University Press.

Wannell, L. (2007). Patients’ relatives and psychiatric doctors: letter writing in the York Retreat, 1875-1910. Social History of Medicine, 20(2), p. 297-313.

Wood, M. E. (1994). The writing on the wall: Women’s autobiography and the asylum. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Some additional titles from the areas of general medical patient histories, subaltern studies & histories from below:

Risse, G. B. & Warner, J. H. (1992). Reconstructing clinical activities: Patient records in medical history. Social History of Medicine, 5(2), p. 183-205.

Sivaramakrishnan, K. (2006). Situating the subaltern: History and anthropology in the subaltern studies project. Journal of Historical Sociology, 8(4), p. 395-429.

Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, P. 271-313.

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