Tag Archives: William Lauder Lindsay

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).