Tag Archives: asylum research

(Anti)Vivisection and the Asylum

As previous articles on this blog have highlighted, animals occasionally played an important part in asylum research in the nineteenth century. Their behaviours could be observed as part of the growing programme of comparative psychology, and they could be used to study the physiological or psychological effects of new drugs. They were also crucial in the development of cerebral localisation theory, being the experimental subjects of various stimulation and ablation procedures which aimed to locate different mental functions in distinct regions of the brain cortex. Tests on dogs, cats, monkeys, rabbits, etc, were a surrogate for human experimentation, and the results of animal studies were transferred to an understanding of the human brain.

David Ferrier. © Wellcome Images.

David Ferrier, a Scottish physician who began his animal research in the laboratory of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in 1873, became the leader of cerebral localisation studies in Britain. His ideas were quickly accepted by most of the scientific community, but they were still highly contentious, and Ferrier, at the front of this programme, became the focus of various criticisms. His evidence was critiqued, and his work was attacked on its principles too. Cerebral localisation was not just reductive of empirical explanation, but reductive of the human soul. His “new phrenology,” as it was termed by its critics, was seen by some as an attempt to remove God from an understanding of the human mind.

In 1875, Frances Power Cobbe wrote that “the prevalent materialistic belief that the secrets of the Mind can be best explored in matter, undoubtedly account in no small matter for the vehemence of the new pursuit of original physiological investigations.” Cobbe, who founded the Victoria Street Society and was the single most influential figure of the anti-vivisection movement in Britain, saw experimental brain studies as unquestionably linked with materialism and the rise of animal experimentation. She believed in an independent, God-given mind, which the new cerebral localisation reduced to simple reflexive machinery. In the most macabre fashion, experimenters showed that volitional acts were not reliant on a conscious, immaterial mind: cats clawed and macaques kicked simply by stimulating a small region of the animals’ brain.

Frances Power Cobbe. © Wellcome Images.

Following a period of petitioning and canvassing, anti-vivisection protestors led by Cobbe succeeded in prompting a Royal Commission into vivisection in 1875. In the House of Commons, the MP James Maden Holt argued that Ferrier’s experiments manifested “a refinement of cruelty which renders the operator… quite unfit to be trusted with the care of an animal, much less of a human being.” He pointed out that “[w]hen it comes to the knowledge of the public that these are the practices of a medical man who has free access to the lunatic asylums of the West Riding, public indignation will know no bounds.” Anti-vivisection campaigners voiced the concern that allowing animal testing was a slippery slope that might eventually lead to human experimentation in asylums or other medical institutions. They had reason to worry. Across the Atlantic, an Ohio physician named Roberts Bartholow had already replicated Ferrier’s electrical stimulations on Mary Rafferty, a young cancer patient under his care at the city’s Medical College.

In 1876, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act (which lasted for 110 years). Under the Act, vivisection could continue, but only for original, useful purposes, with a license from the Home Secretary. Anti-vivisection campaigners saw the Act as a concession to the scientific lobby, and so whilst trying to alter the Act, they also sought to prosecute individuals under the new laws in place. Their main target was Ferrier. In a well-documented session of the 1881 International Medical Congress in London, Ferrier had presented a monkey which had its left motor cortex removed, leaving it with no voluntary control of its right-sided limbs. He was then summoned to court for operating on animals without an appropriate license, though the case was soon thrown out when it was revealed that Ferrier’s assistant had actually conducted all the experiments, and was in possession of a full license. Cobbe’s prosecution failed, and the scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Anti-vivisection campaigners turned to reflect on their movement, and to repeat to their audiences the potential tragedies that lurked in a country that did not seriously resist animal experimentation. The incidence of such operations would undoubtedly continue to rise, and scientists would push the boundaries of decency further. Indeed, in a society openly tolerant of testing on animals, surely it was only a matter of time before scientists turned to other humans as their test material?

Front cover of Heart and Science. © Andrew Gasson.

Ferrier, localization and vivisection became topics for several prominent novels of the time. In Heart and Science (1883), written in response to Ferrier’s 1881 trial, Wilkie Collins tried to “drag the scientific English Savage from his shelter behind the medical interests of humanity.” H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), showed how vivisected animals, which jabber and are kept in conditions similar to asylum patients (at least in the imagination of the public), eventually turn on their tormentor. And in Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker drew attention to the way modern psychology construed humans as automata devoid of a soul. Dr. Seward, an asylum superintendent in the novel, wrote that had he “the secret of one such mind – did I hold the key to the fancy of even one lunatic – I might advance my own branch of science to a pitch compared with which Burdon-Sanderson’s physiology or Ferrier’s brain knowledge would be as nothing.” Asylum patients were perfect material for experimental investigations.

As Richard French has shown, anti-vivisectionism in the nineteenth century was part of a broader public movement against the creeping power of scientific and medical authority, alongside other crusades like the early anti-vaccination campaigns or protests against the Contagious Diseases Acts. The worry of potentially being experimented upon like vivisected animals also had a resonance with criticisms of asylums, which were remote, foreboding and obscure institutions, whose working practices were mostly misunderstood and often dreaded. Alienism – the profession of treating the insane – was as foreign to most men and women as were the grotesque experimental practices of Dr Moreau. Through Ferrier, and his work at the West Riding, vivisection and asylums became well associated, in the scientific community, and the public mind too.

Further Reading

R.D. French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

S.L. Star, Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).

A. Stiles, Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Muscle and mind in the asylum

The bodies of the insane held a particular fascination for the 19th-century asylum doctor. Actions might betray a person’s psychological state in the most striking ways, with bodies subjected to tics and spasms, and facial expressions revealing the deepest thoughts and feelings.

The late 1800s was a climate in which the relationship between body and mind was being ever more meticulously refined. In the 1890s, for example, Charles Sherrington discovered a feedback mechanism in muscles that was important for the regulation of posture and movement. Sherrington’s work suggested that bodily attitudes – such as seated posture, or how a person ‘carried’ themselves – could indicate inner psychology.

L0057988 Dynamometer, France, 1890-1910

A dynamometer, just one of a range of tests that might be used to assess patients’ bodies upon admission. © Wellcome Images

This was an idea that had obvious application within the asylum. At admission, patients were physically assessed, a process that often included testing of the reflexes and bodily strength using contraptions such as the dynamometer (to measure the grasping power of the hands). Thus, a doctor might note something like this: ‘Patellar tendon reflex absent in each limb, no cremasteric reflex. Tactile sensibility of lower limb is diminished.’ For this patient, his mental state was also found wanting; he showed ‘great obtuseness in understanding what [was] said to him’ and was characterised throughout his case notes as dull, unresponsive, and generally ‘diminished’. In a seamless melding of body and mind, both were in a state of decline. It was the body that succeeded in speaking for the patient, his appearance compensating for his difficulties with verbal communication (his articulation was ‘thick and indistinct’).

N0006653 Tabes dorsalis

Demyelination seen in tabes dorsalis. © Wellcome Images

Apart from indicating a general deterioration in a patient’s condition, the state of muscles and reflexes might also indicate the seat of a problem with surprising specificity. David Ferrier noted that the knee jerk was a crucial indicator of disease – it was absent in cases of tabes dorsalis, for example. (Tabes dorsalis is a neurosyphilitic condition characterised by nerve degeneration.) The importance of the muscular sense in health and disease was clear in many physiological and psychiatric tracts. ‘That the muscles possess a sensibility of their own’, wrote Ferrier in The Functions of the Brain, ‘…is proved beyond all doubt by their nervous supply and by physiological and clinical research’. He described a hierarchically-organised community of muscles, varying in strength, ‘thus the powerful extensors of the back, and muscles of the thighs keep the body arched backwards and the legs rigid’. Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne de Boulogne (phew!) had also credited the muscular system with an independent intelligence, reasoning that coordination required a harmonious relationship between different muscle groups. The use of the term ‘muscular sense’ by many physiologists gave muscular tissue an almost anthropomorphic character – muscles were independent entities capable of action and reaction in response to external influences.

L0033543 Spasms in hysterical patients

Muscular spasms in ‘hysterical’ patients. © Wellcome Images

It was up to the patient, then, to keep their muscles in check. The will, an elusive but enduring concept in alienist science, was most forcefully expressed – or most notably absent – in the movements of the body. The view that only the will stood between order and chaos, as Roger Smith tells us, ‘translated easily to physiological descriptions of the economy and hierarchical arrangement of the nervous system’. Loss of control over bodily movements was viewed as a ‘de-education’, or erasure of learned automaticity, seen for example, in the tottery but energetic gait of tabes dorsalis patients.

The central explanations for such loss of control, by emphasising the co-existence of reflex action and the will, allowed mental science to move closer towards natural, biological science without discarding that essence of being human that marked men apart from other animals. Thus, as Stephen Jacyna points out, bodily actions could be explained in a mechanistic way, but also as a consequence of manipulation by the soul. If a person lost their powers of control, the body could descend into a state of chaos. In this way, the patient’s movements and attitudes frequently served as a diagnostic tool in the asylum, particularly if the patient’s own verbal testimony was unreliable or impossible.

Further reading

W.F. Bynum and F. Clifford Rose (eds.), Historical Aspects of the Neurosciences: A Festschrift for Macdonald Critchley (New York: Raven Press, 1982)

David Ferrier, The Functions of the Brain (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1876)

L.S. Jacyna, ‘Somatic theories of mind and the interests of medicine in Britain, 1850–1879’, Medical History 26 (1982).

Roger Smith, Inhibition: History and Meaning in the Sciences of Mind and Brain (London: Free Association Books, 1992).

– Jennifer Wallis

A mystery object

Amidst the records of one nineteenth-century asylum, a ‘Pathological lab scrapbook’ documents the interests of the asylum doctors in a striking visual narrative of limb deformities, brain sections, and photomicrographs. You can read more about that scrapbook here, but today I’m issuing you a challenge: do you know what this item is, below?

It appears towards the end of scrapbook, stuck to a page with no accompanying explanation, but likely dates to the 1890s. Is it something akin to Volkmann’s spoon, used to delicately remove diseased tissue or bone? Or is it something completely unrelated to scientific endeavours, stuck into the book by a playful doctor? Please leave your suggestions in the comments box below – I’d love to know what this is!

– Jennifer Wallis

Bones, breaking strain, and the insane body in 19th-century asylum practice

In January 1870, author Charles Reade wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette to make some sensational claims about the conduct of asylum attendants. Whilst researching his book Hard Cash – in which a young man ends up confined in a lunatic asylum – Reade said he had seen alarming evidence of the tactics used by attendants to subdue the patients in their care. ‘The refractory patient’, he wrote, ‘is thrown down and the keeper walks up and down him on his knees, and even jumps on his body, knees downwards, until he is completely cowed.’ He thus suggested that he had hit upon the answer to a burning question of the day: how was it that so many patients in asylums seemed to sustain fractures?

Within the space of a few months, a number of cases were reported in which patients had been found to have extensive fractures at post mortem – one exhibiting an astonishing eight broken ribs and broken breastbone. The Pall Mall Gazette was not the only media outlet to voice its concerns about the care of the insane in Britain; an article in the British Medical Journal listed several instances of broken ribs, prompting a significant backlash from alienist members of the British Medical Association when it asserted that ‘rib-crushing, though the favourite, seems not to be the only mode in which lunatics are hurried out of existence … [In] 1869 a patient … was boiled in his bath’.

These were serious allegations, and the last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the issue of ill treatment in the asylum gain prominence. In the 1880s and nineties, with the development of training and certification for asylum nurses, handbooks advised staff on how to handle patients carefully, to spot the signs of fracture, and to subdue excitable patients who were especially vulnerable to injury.

The dialogue around broken bones also spread to the asylum laboratory, with some pathologists undertaking post-mortem tests to determine if the bones of the insane were inherently weak or brittle. Visual evidence of bone disease was mentioned in a number of articles on the topic: doctors and pathologists described bones that were ‘soft and boggy’ or ‘like sponge soaked in fat’. There was also a desire, though, to quantify such anomalous appearances more minutely. Theo Hyslop, when working as a Clinical Assistant at the West Riding Asylum, had used ‘an ordinary concrete testing machine’ to measure the strength of ribs at post-mortem. In 1893 Charles Mercier distributed a special instrument he had devised for the purpose. First, one ‘extract[ed] a certain length of the eighth pair of ribs’. Then, the lengths were put into the instrument, one tested against its concavity, the other against its convexity.The instrument ‘had a stirrup at one end and a screw at the other, and between these was a spring which registered the number of pounds pressure exerted. The bone … was put through the stirrup resting on the fork of the machine; the screw was then turned till the rib broke’. He sent this instrument to a number of asylums, as well as some London hospitals; though it is difficult to find much evidence of its use, it was certainly employed at length by Alfred Campbell at Lancashire’s Rainhill Asylum, who attempted to tabulate ‘breaking strain’ by type of mental illness.

Alfred Campbell’s results were most specific, confidently identifying an average breaking strain of 44.8lbs convex and 44.4lbs concave in his male general paralytic (neurosyphilitic) subjects, compared to 62lbs and 65lbs respectively in a healthy adult male. (Similar meticulous records of breaking strain can be seen in Francis Simpson’s Pathological Statistics of Insanity, where breaking strain by mental disease/sex etc. was recorded alongside brain weights.) Campbell’s second paper on the subject was more hesitant. Published only a few months later, this paper cast doubt on the link between fragile bones and insanity: ‘The difference between the average breaking strain of the ribs of the insane and that of the ribs of persons free from mental disease is not so great as one would anticipate’. In his comparative sample of 58 Rainhill Asylum patients and 50 Royal Southern Hospital patients, Campbell found very little difference between the rib breaking strain of the male asylum patient and that of the male general hospital patient. Explaining this, he theorised that wasting diseases had greater influence upon bone structure than mental afflictions – and indeed, many pauper asylum patients were in poor health.

Though the results of experiments like Campbell’s were often inconclusive and of little help to the living patient, the idea of bone fragility was incorporated into asylum administrative practices: at the West Riding Asylum, ‘breaking strain’ was consistently recorded at post-mortem from 1895 until around 1902.

Mercier’s instrument was not enduring in its impact: analysing 200 post-mortems at the West Riding, William Maule Smith in 1903 chose not to use it, instead basing his conclusions ‘on the ease with which fracture was produced by digital compression’ (Mercier, in the audience listening to Smith’s paper, unsurprisingly did not agree with Smith’s method!).

Bizarre as these experiments may seem to us now, the idea that the insane were peculiarly prone to bone disease and fracture was one that fitted logically alongside wider theories about both disease susceptibility and the general health of the asylum patient in the late nineteenth century. Quantifying rib strength did not, though, change the basic fact that patients were vulnerable individuals: the key figure remained the asylum attendant whose responsibilities were unchanged by the suggestion that some patients were especially liable to fracture. Via the lab then, the bones of the patient became capable of mediating not only asylum research, but also everyday practices and social relations – objects both constructed and constructing, and a sign that the insane body was not a merely passive one, even in death.

Further reading

Anonymous, ‘A social blot’, British Medical Journal (22 Oct. 1870).

Alfred W. Campbell, ‘The breaking strain of the ribs of the insane: an analysis of a series of fifty-eight cases tested with an instrument specially devised by Dr C.H. Mercier’, Journal of Mental Science 41 (1895).

Alfred W. Campbell, ‘A comparison between the breaking strain of the ribs of the sane and insane’, British Medical Journal (28 Sept. 1895).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘Mollities ossium in relation to rib-fracture among the insane’. Edinburgh Medical Journal 16 (1870).

Charles Mercier, The Attendant’s Companion: a manual of the duties of attendants in lunatic asylums (London: J & A Churchill, 1898).

George H. Pedler, ‘Mollities ossium and allied diseases’, in James Crichton-Browne (ed.) West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports 1 (London: J & A Churchill, 1871).

Charles Reade, ‘How lunatics’ ribs get broken’, Pall Mall Gazette 1541 (20 Jan. 1870).

Francis O. Simpson, The Pathological Statistics of Insanity (London: Baillière, Tindall & Cox, 1900).

William Maule Smith, ‘On the nature of fragilitas ossium in the insane’, British Medical Journal (3 Oct. 1903).

– Jennifer Wallis