Post-mortems in the asylum and issues of consent

Our last post explored why post-mortems were considered essential to the scientific study of mental illness in the 19th century, with the procedure establishing cause of death and gathering pathological information that could be correlated with clinical notes taken during life. How was consent for post-mortems obtained, though, and how much input did patients’ friends and families have on the practice?

Seeking consent

That the bodies of asylum patients were considered important repositories of knowledge can be seen in the efforts made by asylum doctors to secure them for post-mortem examination. Eric Engstrom, investigating German psychiatric clinics, describes how ‘valuable neuropathological specimens’ were offered free beds in order to obtain access to their bodies after death. In Britain, there were appeals during the 1870s for post-mortems to be made a universal, automatic practice within medical institutions. Despite the support of prominent alienist Sir James Crichton-Browne and others, efforts to institute ‘carte blanche post-mortems’ were rejected in 1877, though this did not mean that all asylums followed the same protocol with regard to the procedure. Jonathan Andrews summarises: ‘At some asylums post-mortems had become de rigueur, formal consent not even being sought. At a minority, prior consent was procured from patients while living. Whereas a few sought written consent using purpose-specific pro-forma, others relied merely on verbal consent’.

L0000838 Section of the brain, 19th century.

At the West Riding Asylum in Yorkshire, the intent to perform a post-mortem was made clear on the notice of admission sent to relatives: ‘In case of death the usual post-mortem examination will be made in order to certify correctly the cause of death. Relatives in any case objecting to this course are requested to communicate immediately upon receipt of this notice, personally, with the Medical Superintendent.’ It is impossible to know how many families responded – or indeed were able to respond, depending on literacy levels – to this specific advice. Towards the end of the 19th century it is clear that some relatives were voicing their objection to post-mortem. Casebooks kept during the patient’s life might be annotated ‘Post mortem objected to’, or alternatively ‘No objection to P.M.’

Sample of a post-mortem book, 1899. © WYAS, Wakefield.

Sample of a post-mortem book, 1899. © WYAS, C85/1132.

Determining the specifics of post-mortem

Post-mortem records show that some families had very specific ideas about where the boundaries lay, and Andrews notes that this might be particularly evident if families belonged to a religious denomination that emphasised resurrection. Even amongst people without such beliefs, though, the idea of a post-mortem was – and is – a difficult one to deal with. In Speaking for the Dead, the authors relate the case of a mother whose son was killed in a road accident. Two years after his cremation, she and her family discovered that her son’s brain had been removed, and that his body had thus not been intact at his cremation. “It was my son’s heart and brain that made him what he was,” she said, and this is a feeling that crosses many cultures – of the brain as intimately bound up with the self.

There is a sense of this in several 19th-century records too. Often the ‘[h]ead [was] not permitted to be examined’, though there were some exceptions in which the head only was specified, possibly if the potential value of the exam to the wider study of mental illness had been emphasised by the doctor. Usually, the thorax was the part viewed by the family as an acceptable area of investigation, with records noting ‘Chest only examined’, or ‘Thorax only permitted to be examined’.

From J.M. Beattie, Post-Mortem Methods, 1915. © Wellcome Library, London.

From J.M. Beattie, Post-Mortem Methods, 1915.
© Wellcome Library, London.

There were also moves towards making death a less harrowing experience for patients’ families, with separate chapels set up apart from the mortuary. Reporting on the arrangements at Claybury Asylum, the British Medical Journal reported:

‘Our representative was much struck by the care taken to save the feelings of the friends of the dead. There is a cheerfully-furnished waiting-room for their special use; when they wish to take their last look at the departed the coffin is wheeled into the central hall where there is no trace of anything unpleasantly suggestive.’

Whilst asylum staff were keen to examine the bodies of deceased patients, then, there was increasing awareness that friends and families had a place in decisions about post-mortem practices, even if this was a time at which consent procedures were still being elaborated.

Further reading

J. Andrews (ed.), History of Psychiatry 23 (Mar. 2012) – Special issue: ‘Lunacy’s last rites: dying insane in Britain, c.1629-1939′.

S.  Ferber and S. Wilde (eds.), The Body Divided: Human Beings and Human ‘Material’ in Modern Medical History (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).

E.T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and its Trade in the Dead Poor (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

R. Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Phoenix, 2001).

M. Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

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