This book explores how the body was investigated in the late nineteenth-century asylum in Britain. As more and more Victorian asylum doctors looked to the bodily fabric to reveal the ‘truth’ of mental disease, a whole host of techniques and technologies were brought to bear upon the patient's body. These practices encompassed the clinical and the pathological, from testing the patient's reflexes to dissecting the brain.
Investigating the Body in the Victorian Asylum takes a unique approach to the topic, conducting a chapter-by-chapter dissection of the body. It considers how asylum doctors viewed and investigated the skin, muscles, bones, brain, and bodily fluids. The book demonstrates the importance of the body in nineteenth-century psychiatry as well as how the asylum functioned as a site of research, and will be of value to historians of psychiatry, the body, and scientific practice.
Jennifer Wallis is Lecturer in Cultural and Intellectual History at Queen Mary University of London, UK, where she teaches courses on the history of psychiatry, the body, and nineteenth-century Britain. Her work has previously been published in History of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities, among others.
In 1881 a middle-aged man named Thomas was admitted to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in West Yorkshire. Diagnosed with chronic mania, he would stay in the Asylum until his death from rupture of the heart in 1907, aged 65. During his time there, he received various tonics and laxatives, had his temperature charted, his reflexes tested, and his eyes examined. After death, his heart was preserved for the Asylum’s on-site ‘museum’ and his case recounted in a short piece for The Lancet by the Asylum’s pathologist. 1 This story of a lengthy stay in an asylum, characterised by various treatments and physical examinations, and ending with postmortem analysis, was not unusual. The late nineteenth century saw an increasing amount of discussion among the psychiatric (or ‘alienist’) community about the relationship between mental disease and the body. There was a sense among many of these researchers that mental disease could be located, somewhere, deep within the bodily fabric. As asylums filled up with chronic cases, many of them bedridden and destined to live out their final days on the wards, more and more asylum doctors immersed themselves in research that aimed to uncover the bodily root of mental disease. From superintendents to clinical assistants to pathologists, asylum doctors examined and discussed the lesions of the brain uncovered at postmortem, the unusual stains they had produced in pieces of tissue, or the samples of abnormally thick skull bone that testified to their own manual dexterity as well as to the bodily state of the patient.
This search for the somatic seat of mental disease was something that stretched beyond the examination of the skull and brain. In the second half of the nineteenth century, muscles, skin, bones, urine, sweat, faeces, and hearts were all observed, analysed, and experimented upon by researchers aiming to solve the mysteries of mental disease. Leafing through one of the key publications of the Victorian alienist profession, the Journal of Mental Science (founded in 1853 as the Asylum Journal, today the British Journal of Psychiatry), the importance accorded to the physical body of the patient is clear. There are papers relating cases of tumours, of fatal accidents, of seizures, and—as the nineteenth century progresses—accounts of the microscopic investigation of brain tissue and nerve cells, or attempts to link physical and mental anomalies with discrete lesions of the brain substance. The body was a consistent point of interest for nineteenth-century asylum doctors.