Science in the Asylum
patients, psychiatry, and the laboratory

Wakefield, 19th October 2012.

Looking from the church entrance to the original asylum clock tower.

On 19 October 2012, we organised a one-day conference, ‘Science in the Asylum: patients, psychiatry, and the laboratory’. Held within the old theatre/dining hall of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum – now converted into a church – the day aimed to build upon present histories addressing the social aspects of the asylum by examining the scientific work that occurred within these institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. The conference focused on the West Riding Asylum in Wakefield as an entry point into the study of scientific work in asylums more generally. Founded in 1818, the Asylum became one of the world’s most famous research-oriented institutions and by the end of the Victorian era was a model of a new ‘scientific’ psychiatry.

Kicking off the proceedings, Katherine Fennelly (Manchester) and Claire Jones (Leeds) highlighted the importance of location and architecture to the practice of alienism in the 19th century. The large numbers of people collected together in a county asylum such as the West Riding, Claire explained, posed many challenges in controlling and containing infectious diseases such as TB, with infection a risk to both patients and staff.

Staff were also central to Rob Ellis’s (Huddersfield) talk later in the morning, where he considered how far the ideals of a scientific approach to mental disease had a practical impact on the day-to-day running of the West Riding Asylum. In the same session, Mike Finn (Leeds) took us off the wards and into the laboratory, examining the influences upon David Ferrier’s work into cerebral localisation via visual representations of the brain in the late 19th century.

Mike Finn leads delegates on a tour of the site.

Over lunch, all 45 delegates joined Mike on a short  tour of our surroundings. A large part of the original West Riding Asylum building has been restored and converted into apartments – including what was once the Asylum Superintendent’s residence – and the iconic clock tower still stands at the head of the site (and within which the asylum records were once held!). In the basement, now serving as a bike shed for residents, delegates had a glimpse of the remains of the basement rooms before heading back for the afternoon session.

Jennifer Wallis examines the sphygmograph in asylum practice, in the grand setting of Destiny Church.

In ‘Applying Scientific Research’, Liz Gray (QMUL), Jennifer Wallis (QMUL), Dee Hoole (Aberdeen) and Mick Worboys (Manchester) assessed the role of animals, instruments, and individuals in asylum research. Liz took us beyond the West Riding to introduce us to the work of Lauder Lindsay in the field of comparative psychology, who used his observations of animals to inform his theories on insanity in humans. Next, Jennifer looked at the use of the sphygmograph (a pulse-recording device) in asylum practice in the 1870s, highlighting how such episodes in the history of psychiatry might problematise traditional ideas within the wider history of medicine, such as the lab/clinic ‘split’. Dee and Mick both noted the influence of individuals in the development of asylum research; Mick brought us out of the 19th century and into the 20th with a fascinating look at the work of Max Hamilton and his development of depression ‘rating scales’.

Hamilton’s work was also mentioned in the next talk by John Hall, who spoke about his time working with Hamilton and his colleague Gwynne Jones in the 1970s. John’s work in clinical psychology meant that he was familiar with the West Riding Asylum (or Stanley Royd Hospital, as it was then known) in the late 20th century, and was able to share his memories of the research carried out there in the years before its closure.

Completing the day, Teresa Nixon and Jenny Brierley from West Yorkshire Archive Service offered advice to any delegates planning to utilise psychiatric records in their research, as well as demonstrating their own use of such records in the online History to Herstory project.

Inside the padded cell in the Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health.

Finally, a number of delegates joined us at the nearby Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health, dedicated to the history of the West Riding Asylum. Curator Jane Pightling and her team were available to answer questions, show visitors around, and provide some all-important refreshment before delegates made their way home.

Throughout the day, talks both by the speakers and between delegates made clear the wealth of information currently being uncovered about the role of scientific research in the asylum. It’s evident that the history of ‘scientific research’ broadly construed is a history with many faces, of which asylum research is just one, but one that may offer new and interesting perspectives. We hope that will be a means of continuing the dialogue begun at the conference – so please do follow the blog, and get in touch if you would like to submit a short post about your own research.

You can download the conference poster here, and view the Science in the Asylum programme.

‘Science in the Asylum’ was generously supported by the Centre for the History of the Emotions at QMUL, the Centre for HPS at the University of Leeds, and the British Association for Victorian Studies.