Tag Archives: David Ferrier

(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

Animals and the Asylum: A comparative approach to the science of mind

This week’s post comes from Liz Gray, who is currently undertaking doctoral research at QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions. Liz also blogs about her work at Tales of Animals Past.

William Lauder Lindsay. © Natural History Museum

During the second half of the 19thcentury the discipline of comparative psychology was a mixture of methods and approaches. Anthropologists, physiologists, and alienists all used the title for their studies of the mind in man and animals. Scottish naturalist-physician and alienist William Lauder Lindsay (1829-1880) had his own interpretation: the study of mind in the lower animals, in particular the mind in a diseased state.

His theory was that the lower animals and man shared a ‘community of disease’ – that physically and mentally all animals (including man) could be affected by the same pathologies. Having begun his experimental career investigating the transmission of cholera between humans and dogs, a topic to which he returned on many occasions, by 1870 he had turned his attention to psychopathology.

The study of the animal mind offered the chance to garner an insight into the human mind, in particular the diseased or insane mind:

‘…their study [morbid mental phenomena] in other and lower animals by the physician or veterinarian, naturalist or comparative psychologist, cannot fail to bring to light many data of the highest interest to man’s knowledge of human insanity.’

By the 1870s this was not a unique idea. In 1873 James Crichton-Browne invited David Ferrier to use laboratory space at the West Riding Asylum, providing him with a variety of animal subjects (pigeons, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs), for his investigations into the pathology of epilepsy. French physiologist and neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard also explored the artificial production of epilepsy in small mammals.

What set Lindsay apart from the physiological approach was his method of investigation, and his interest in a moral and mental,  rather than physical, hierarchy of species. Darwinian morality of the 19th century placed the intellectual, upper-class white man at the ‘top of the tree’. In mental and moral terms, dogs (man’s most loyal companion) were ranked below men; women were equal or lower to dogs. Children, ‘savages’ and the mentally ill all occupied lower rungs on this particular evolutionary scale.

One of Crichton-Browne’s photographs of a West Riding patient. © Wellcome Images

Whilst conducting his research for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin was struck by the notion that ‘the insane ought to be studied, as they are liable to the strongest passions, and give uncontrolled vent to them.’ He was put in touch with Crichton-Browne, who provided him with ‘copious notes and descriptions’ based on his observations of his own patients. Although the photographs of these patients were not included in the final book, the information they provided were integral to Darwin’s views on the subject of emotional expression. (The Expression of the Emotions is often referred to as a founding text of comparative psychology, even though he doesn’t use the terminology).

Observation of behaviour and expression were the tools that Lindsay and others utilised in their studies – methods of the naturalist rather than the physiologist. What enabled Lindsay to draw comparisons between his patients at the James Murray Royal Asylum in Perth and the animals he observed, was his experience of the insane and ‘idiotic’ who were unable to communicate verbally. In these cases changes in behaviour, facial expression, and vocal noises were seen as indications of mental disturbance. Herbert Major (a contemporary of Crichton-Browne’s, who also worked at the West Riding Asylum) provided Lindsay with a case study where the same could be seen in animals:

‘…a case of association of irritability of temper, with loss of memory and diminished intelligence, including failure to recognise her master, coincidently with the development of fits, apparently of an epileptic character, and with partial paralysis of the limbs, all in an old terrier bitch, these conditions, moreover, being coincident with senile atrophy or degeneration of the brain.’

Head of a dog, from Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806). © Wellcome Images

Animals acted as experimental models of disease, as well as providing insights into behaviour and expression as diagnostic tools for mental disease and derangement. Lindsay took this approach one step further. By interpreting these links as evidence of a ‘community of disease’, he turned towards possible environmental factors that could influence the mind.

One of the simplest experiments of Lindsay seems to have been inspired by the saying, ‘Like a red rag to a bull’. By changing the colour of the light in the sleeping rooms of some of his patients, he studied the reaction of the mind to different colours. He was unconvinced by the anecdotal animal evidence of reactions to colour, and his human experiments produced ‘negative conclusions’.

A snarling dog from Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. © Wellcome Images

Metrological data can be found in the medical reports of Perth asylum for a period of almost 5 years. It was used to analyse changes in both the behaviour and physical health of patients. Climatic changes seemed to have little effect on the types of mental disease at the asylum, and physical effects mirrored  the health of the more general population of Perthshire. But the observation of climate was part of a wider area of interest in the causes of mental disease.  Lindsay was well-travelled and wrote papers on the etiology of mental illness around the world. One such study focused on the impact of the colder climate experienced in Norway, Iceland, and other Arctic countries. People and animals, in particular dogs, were affected by both the climate and latitude of these countries. They suffered predominantly from depression and melancholia as a result of the low levels of sunlight, solitude due to sparse populations, and the monotonous scenery.

For Lindsay, the science of comparative psychology was located within the asylum and the research opportunities it offered. His explanations of animal behaviour with their anthropomorphic basis were used in his ideas of human mental disease. Animals were introduced into the asylum as scientific subjects, but not objects of physical experimentation. The asylum patient was seen as an equally valid object for research, although carefully designed as part of the moral treatment approach.

– Liz Gray

Further reading

Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: J. Murray, 1872).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘Community of Disease in Man and Other Animals’, British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review 53 (1874).

W. Lauder Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease, 2 vols. (London: C.K. Paul, 1879).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘On Insanity and Lunatic Asylums in Norway: Being the Narrative of a Visit made in the Summer of 1857′,  Journal of Psychology Medicine 11 (1858).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘The Causes of Insanity in Arctic Countries’, British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review 14 (1870).

Robert J. Richards,  Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).