Tag Archives: psychiatry on film

Guest post: Does the madness of King George III matter?

One of the best things about running asylumscience is the queries that we receive about the history of psychiatry. Simon Tombs, teacher of Psychology at Devonport High School for Girls in Plymouth, recently contacted us about a project he was putting together on King George III. In this guest post, he tells us more.

At Devonport High School, we have a long tradition of working with schools from other countries on projects that promote international understanding. Last October, I was offered the chance to work on a project with the Käthe-Kollwitz-Schule in Hanover. The English participants were Year 9 students (13-14 year olds), the German students a year older. The plan was for the German students to come to Plymouth in June 2013 and the Plymouth students to Germany the following year. The working title for the project was ‘History Matters’ and the springboard for this European-funded partnership is the 300th anniversary (in 2014) of the accession of the Hanoverians to the British throne. There were a number of topics planned for the project. George III’s madness was one of them. We aimed to understand something about how ideas about mental health and illness were exchanged between England and Germany. A bit of internet research suggested that psychology and psychiatry as academic disciplines started around the time of George’s illness in Germany. We wondered how, if at all, these ideas might have affected his treatment and recovery. For this project, I worked principally with Gesa Wrage at the Käthe-Kollwitz-Schule, and Elspeth Wiltshire who co-ordinates international projects at Devonport.

L0025613 King George III. Mezzotint after T. Frye.The original plan was to devise a session called ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’. I got in touch with Jennifer at asylumscience. She was able to provide some leads about asylums in the early 19th century. I had a look at an account of life inside the Eberbach Asylum in Germany and a summary of what German doctors had discovered when they visited England in the mid-19th century. This seemed promising: we could show students images of asylums from both Britain and Germany and ask them to consider what was the same or different. The written sources might tell us something about what life was like. We could think about why people living with mental illness might be moved to the countryside. I found something about the debate between ‘somaticists’ and ‘psychisists’ whose ideas about the causes of mental illness seemed to prefigure current debates on biological and psychological explanations for mental disorders.

The Madness of King George

-The-Madness-Of-King-GeorgeOne of the experiences which transformed the project was watching The Madness of King George. I had a vague recollection of seeing the film when it was released almost 20 years ago, and remembered the brutality of some of the treatments given to George. I also remembered Alan Bennett having fun with the depiction of Francis Willis, the doctor who was thought to have cured George, as a dour Lincolnshire puritan (my wife is from Lincolnshire). I realised when I watched the film again how many powerful ideas were in it. George’s illness was public knowledge and was seen as everybody’s business, in part because of the political situation at the time. In this, he seemed to prefigure modern celebrities  who go public about their mental health.

I also caught an excerpt of Simon Schama speaking at the Hay Sessions, discussing the importance of the late 18th century in our view of the modern world. Schama was bemoaning the lack of emphasis placed on this period in the new National Curriculum for History. I realised that George’s story stood at the point at which people began to realise that mental illness was something that could be understood scientifically. Francis Willis may have lacked social graces but he was at the forefront of enlightened, scientific thinking. He was part of a broader movement for change in England, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. He became a celebrity after George’s recovery, receiving a generous state pension, a series of portraits and a special commemorative coin. Willis believed that George could get better. With this in mind, we planned for the students to watch The Madness of King George before their visit. I put together a session for the students to look at sources and understand more of the background to George’s story.

Discussing taboo

The second transforming experience was getting some help from a small group of the German students. They had been to an exhibition about taboo at an art gallery in Hanover and made a 10-minute Powerpoint presentation about what they had seen. They explained the origins of the word ‘taboo’, what was seen as taboo in the 18th century, and what was taboo today. Their presentation  raised some important questions. They made a connection between taboo and religion and made me think more fundamentally about where the stigma around mental illness really comes from. We used their input to discuss some questions:

  • Should we be talking about what was wrong with someone who died a long time ago and is not here to speak for himself?
  • If someone famous or important today has a mental illness, do we have the right to know about it?
  • Should celebrities living with mental illness talk about their illness? Should journalists write about it?
  • Is there still a taboo about mental illness? If there is, who makes it a taboo?
  • Apart from celebrities, should the views and opinions of people living with mental illness be heard more?

Mind’s Time to Change campaign has tried to break taboos around mental illness, with celebrities like Stephen Fry talking about their experiences.

Visiting Saltram House

The third part of the project was a visit to Saltram House, a National Trust property on the edge of Plymouth. With the support of Anida Rayfield, who leads the volunteer tour guides at Saltram, we found that George had stayed there for a fortnight in 1789 following his illness. The house still looks very much as it did when George was there. George’s visit was designed to show that he had recovered. The route of his journey from Weymouth was lined with well-wishers, he came into Plymouth to great public acclaim to review the fleet, and visited the houses of the local gentry. We started to wonder how well he really was and if his visit was a form of convalescence. The family who lived there and all but two of their staff were absent throughout his stay: George brought his own people with him. He was able to walk in the extensive grounds in what was then a rural setting. His staff and carers would have been able to establish a routine and keep things in the manner to which he was accustomed. There was no court business conducted during his stay. It looks as if his stay in Saltram exemplified the ‘moral treatment’ advocated by Francis Willis and others.

Students imagine how a modern newsreader might report on George III's visit to Saltram House. © Elspeth Wiltshire/Simon Tombs.

Students imagine how a modern newsreader might report George III’s visit to Saltram House. © Elspeth Wiltshire/Simon Tombs.

Outcomes and going forward

Our project is ongoing. At the end of their session, we asked students why they thought the madness of King George was important and what else they wanted to know. Some focused on historical questions about what happened next, others said they wanted to know more about the idea of taboo. Others raised questions about science and medicine, both in relation to what was wrong with George and how he was treated, and with regard to what is done for people who suffer from conditions like George’s today. Both English and German students had the opportunity on the final day of the visit to explain what some of these questions were in a presentation to an invited audience of students, parents, and others connected with the school and the project. We have a year to work out how to deal with these questions and share ideas before the English students visit Germany in 2014.

L0025614 King George III. Soft-ground etching by W. Daniell after G.For me, it has already become clear why the madness of King George III matters. Through his story, we can see the birth of ideas that we deal with in contemporary psychology. We can see how questions about taboo, historical diagnosis, and the voices of people living with mental illness emerge from his story. One of the things we have not yet got hold of is what George himself thought of how he was treated, both at Saltram and before and after his visit there. I hope that is something we will understand better in time. Before we started, we were concerned that we were exposing some of the younger students to material about mental illness which they might find difficult. To deal with this, we formulated a statement that set boundaries and explained where support might be found. History matters because it enables us to approach issues which we might have forgotten, or feel embarrassed by. The sources about George in the form of written accounts, images and – in the case of Saltram House – concrete objects give us a vivid and compelling insight into these issues. We finished our session by watching a scene towards the end of The Madness of King George. George acts out the scene from King Lear where Lear is reconciled with Cordelia and talks about himself and his illness. I know of no better portrayal of the pain, the resilience, and the hope that are at the core of the experience of people who live with mental illness.

Discovering psychiatry on film: Imagining Robert (2002)

Studying the history of psychiatry can be an affecting enterprise, encompassing the past emotional states of historical actors, the present feelings of the historian, and the potential reactions of the historian’s audience. Reading a 100 year old casebook often throws up challenges to the old ideal of historical ‘objectivity’. I’ve been moved by many stories encountered during my research, such as the male asylum patient who died in 1890 having had ‘no visitors since [his] admission’ 20 years previously. Such episodes sometimes seem unhelpfully far away, however, taking place within an alien context that is difficult for the historian to grasp fully.

This is where films such as Lawrence R. Hott’s Imagining Robert come in, providing us with a much more accessible means of thinking about the history of mental health care. Complementing the 1997 book of the same name, Imagining Robert tells the story of Robert Neugeboren, chiefly through the eyes of his brother, Jay. After suffering his first breakdown at the age of 19, Robert was admitted to what would be the first of many psychiatric hospitals and a seemingly endless round of therapists and treatments.

Robert and Jay Neugeboren as teenagers.

Robert and Jay Neugeboren as teenagers.

Jay Neugeboren’s book, Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival, chronicled Robert’s chaotic journey through the American mental health system since his first admission in 1962. It led to several offers of help from interested readers, including New York City’s Project Renewal, a ‘highly structured living’ initiative that aims to help homeless men and women suffering from mental illness or addiction problems live a more independent life. The film documents Robert’s first few months with Project Renewal, during which his relish for his new life is plain to see as he goes about everyday activities such as buying shoes or visiting a restaurant for lunch. He is a delight to watch: with his sunglasses, baseball cap, and ever-present cigarette he’s not a million miles away from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’s Raoul Duke (a comparison one suspects would please Robert, who evidently loves the camera). Reciting his poetry and sketching self portraits, his frequent witticisms merge with the angry outbursts of the stereotypical ‘artist’s temperament’. “Why don’t you work for the census bureau?” he challenges a social worker whose questioning irks him.

Robert Neugeboren today.

Robert Neugeboren today.

Brother Jay takes all this in his stride, with the two sharing an obviously strong bond. Though old home movie footage sets up a picture of the contented all-American family, as the film progresses it becomes clear that family life for Robert was more complicated than it first appears. Robert and Jay’s mother is a contradictory and mysterious figure, all the more so as she is unable to tell her side of the story, suffering from Alzheimer’s and in residential care. Jay relates how her distress at Robert’s mental illness resulted in a self-conscious distancing from her son; after a 15 year interval during which she had not seen him, she introduced herself to him at a social function and enquired who he was. “I’m Robert Neugeboren, your son.” On another occasion, she had placed Robert’s belongings in a large trunk for safe keeping, in anticipation of the day when he was able to live on his own in the community: a wedding photograph, his beloved 16mm camera, a framed sketch, Robert’s diary of his hospital experience. The complexity of the family’s role in mental illness, explored by historians such as Patricia Prestwich and Akihito Suzuki (among others), is a timeless issue; the recollections of Robert’s family are a reminder that there isn’t a ‘blueprint’ for how a family deals with mental illness.

At the end of the film, screened as part of LSHTM’s ‘History, Health and Films’ series, one audience member asked what Robert’s diagnosis was. Alex Cohen of LSHTM referred back to a scene in the film in which Jay notes the constantly shifting nature of psychiatric diagnoses. Robert’s diagnoses were, said Jay, dependent on which drug therapy proved successful at the time: when lithium was deemed effective, he was bipolar; when it was Thorazine, the diagnosis changed to schizophrenia. Encapsulated in Jay’s brief assessment is an astute recognition both of the idiosyncrasy and historicity of diagnostic terms, and indeed definitions of mental health and illness more generally. In a relatively short period of time, Robert and his family underwent a whole gamut of treatments – as well as drug therapies, there was also family therapy and orthomolecular therapy (strong doses of vitamins). The latter drew sniggers from the audience: like the use of trepanation in the late 19th century, orthomolecular therapy was viewed as a faintly ridiculous and naive therapeutic route, yet its relative newness highlights how quickly theories about, and treatments for, mental illness can change.

Opinions of the psychiatric hospitals portrayed in the film are both negative and positive. Fittingly, it is Robert himself who assesses the hospitals he has passed through, describing abuse and restraint at Creedmoor State, but better experiences at Long Island’s Hillside hospital. Robert and Jay visit the crumbling Creedmoor site, Jay remembering how he hated visiting his brother there. The building is a stark symbol of 20th-century deinstitutionalisation, whilst Robert, who has experienced the psychiatric hospital, its demise, and aftermath, reclines on the grass outside.


The next films in the LSHTM’s series are This is Your Hospital (2011) and The Hurt Mind: Physical Treatment (1957) on 12 December. Further details can be found here.

- Jennifer Wallis