1851: Wiltshire County Asylum

September 19, 1851 – Opening of the Wiltshire County Asylum in Devizes, in South West England. Yet another of those large Victorian asylums that were built all over Britain. They were meant to offer the mentally ill, many of whom were hard to cure back then, a somewhat better place to live (and to get them out of harm’s way).

Wiltshire County Asylum1849 design drawing of the asylum,
architect: Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880)

The asylum, which later would be called Roundway Hospital, grew rapidly. The building had to be expanded several times. It had 250 patients when it opened; 1000 in 1910; and over 1500 at its peak in 1943.

Since the 1930s, this mental hospital experimented with virtually all the then-known forms of therapy – including the more notorious, dangerous ones. They introduced malaria-induced “fever therapy” in 1938; began using electroshocks in 1942; performed prefrontal brain surgery (better known as lobotomy) since 1946; and they briefly tried insulin-induced “coma therapy” about 1950.

Most of such nasty therapies became superfluous when the first modern anti-depressant and tranquilizing medication (such as chlorpromazine, known in the US as Thorazine) appeared on the scene.

In this hospital, such more effective medication was introduced between 1956-1959. After that, the number of patients soon began to dwindle. In 1990 there were only 270 patients left.

Wiltshire County AsylumThe old asylum’s main building today

In 1995 the last remaining patients were moved to another location. Today, the old main building from 1851 serves as an apartment complex.

Eric Walrond

A noteworthy and perhaps unexpected patient in this Wiltshire mental hospital was Afro-Caribbean writer Eric Walrond (1898-1966), who in the 1920s had played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement in New York. He was especially known for his 1926 Tropic Death stories, full of poetic impressionist language and slang talk.

Eric WalrondIn 1930 Walrond had moved to England. He suffered from chronic depression; he described himself in a 1940 letter as a “depression casualty”.

From 1952 to 1957 he lived as a “voluntary patient” in this asylum, then known as the Roundway Hospital. During his stay here he helped start and edit a hospital magazine, Roundway Review.

When in 1966 he died, collapsing on a street in a London, he had become an impoverished and nearly forgotten figure. Recently however people are rediscovering him as an important pioneer of African-American literature. Or maybe I should say Caribbean-American literature.

A 2011 edition of his later writings, In Search of Asylum, has several stories that he wrote as a patient here in this Wiltshire mental hospital.

Footnotes:

  • The Devizes Heritage site has some more information about this asylum, plus a photo gallery with several old pictures: Wiltshire County Asylum for Insane – Roundway Hospital.
  • There also is a book (from 2000, now sold out) about the asylum’s history: Down Pans Lane: The History of Roundway Hospital, Devizes: 1851-1995, by Philip Frank Steele.Eric Walrond book As I write this, Amazon-UK offers one single second-hand copy for the ridiculous collector price of £280.00 – so don’t blame me for not having read it.
  • The book with Eric Walrond stories (cover picture here) is much easier to get. It was published in 2011; here is an Amazon link. In Search of Asylum: The Later Writings of Eric Walrond, edited by Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade, with a foreword by Joan Stewart.

 


1973: Two Psychiatrist Stamps

September 17, 1973 – Are you old enough to remember postage stamps? From before email? From the time of fountain pens and envelopes?

Famous people often ended up with their face adorning a stamp. Famous psychiatrists were no exception: sometimes a psychiatrist was honored with a stamp.

Now on this wonderful day in 1973 the government of the Caribbean island of Grenada – which of course you love as the place where much of our nutmeg comes from – issued a series of stamps to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the start of the World Health Organization.

The series featured six great men from the history of medicine. Sorry, no woman among them. Two of the stamps showed a psychiatrist: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his younger rival Carl Jung (1875-1961).

The Eye of the Beholder

To be honest, I myself do rank these Grenada stamps among the ugliest psychiatrist stamps I’ve ever encountered. With their flowery adornments they almost look like votive pictures for those true devotees who want to revere Saint Freud (the bearded one) and Saint Jung:

Freud and Jung stamps

Yes I know, style and beauty and likeness and simplicity remain a matter of personal taste. And of course you had always suspected that Jung was blessed with a much, much bigger head than Freud. But I’ve got yet another gripe here.

Pricing

Being something of a neo-Freudian myself, I’m not really happy about the prices.

For one precious Jung (35 cent) people could buy almost twelve cheap Freuds (3 cent). Did the Grenadian authorities really think Jung was worth twelve times as much as Freud?

OK, now that I think about it, maybe its low price also helped to make the Freud stamp the most popular of the two. So maybe the whole thing was not too bad after all…   ;-) 

 


2002: Dr. Phil

September 16, 2002 – Debut of the still-popular American TV show Dr. Phil, with psychologist Phil McGraw (52 at the time) claiming to give practical no-nonsense psychological advice about all kinds of daily life problems.

McGraw had learned how to play the public as a sidekick in the Oprah Winfrey Show in the years before. With his own show, he soon made millions every year (about $80 million in the year 2009, according to Wikipedia).

Dr. Phil

His television popularity led to several spin-offs and side activities, both successful (in the form of several bestselling self-help books) and less successful (a flunked line of weight loss products).

Although McGraw started his career as a clinical psychologist he didn’t actually work in that capacity since the early 1990s. He kept his professional license dormant for a long time but “retired” it in 2006.

How He Sees Himself

Here is a quote from his official Dr. Phil website. He certainly does not suffer from modesty:

 
“Dr. Phil McGraw, perhaps the most well-known mental health professional in the world, is the host of the leader in daytime talk, Dr. Phil. Launched in 2002, Dr. Phil provides the most comprehensive forum on mental health issues in the history of television. For 12 years, Dr. McGraw has used the Dr. Phil platform to make psychology accessible and understandable to the general public by addressing important personal and social issues. Using his top-rated show as a teaching tool, he takes aim at the critical issues of our time, including the “silent epidemics” of bullying, drug abuse, domestic violence, depression, child abuse, suicide and various forms of severe mental illness.”
 
“Dr. McGraw uses the power of television to tell compelling stories about real people with a wide range of emotional and behavioral problems, stripping away the shame and embarrassment that often keep people from seeking help. Many viewers, for the first time in their lives, develop an understanding of problems experienced by their families and themselves and, in the comfort of their homes, experience the hope and possibility of change. With a strong commitment to research, and the assistance of leading scholars and behavioral scientists, Dr. McGraw educates viewers about state-of-the-art and evidence-based treatment options for many of the most challenging problems faced by individuals, couples and families. His unique dedication to families and children is legend to the millions of people around the world who watch his show and read his books.”
 

How I See Him

There is just one reason why I wanted to give this self-proclaimed “perhaps most well-known mental health professional in the world” a well-deserved mention here at my History of Mental Health site.

I think the 2002 introduction of his TV show was a historic milestone indeed – one of the awful kind. In my opinion it marked a new low in the way a TV personality (using psychology as a pretext) achieved popularity by publicly exploiting the insecurity of vulnerable individuals.

In Dr. Phil’s simplistic, sensation-seeking performances I see just as much professional psychological depth and nuance as I can see juice in a balloon.

Yes, this man gives me the creeps. Please allow me to leave it at this.

 


1866: Adolf Meyer

September 13, 1866 – Birth date of Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, who between about 1900-1940 was an important figure in American psychiatry.

Adolf Meyer

After his training as a psychiatrist and neuropathologist in Switzerland, he had emigrated to the USA in 1892 (when he was 26). As the director of mental health clinics and as professor of psychiatry at Cornell (1904-1909) and Johns Hopkins University (1910-1941) he would have a huge influence on the training of a whole generation of psychiatrists. In 1927-1928 he was president of the APA (American Psychiatric Association).

Mental Condition as Part of a Whole

Although Meyer was more an empirical scientist than a Freudian psychiatrist, he combined a few Freudian concepts (the importance of childhood experiences and of sexuality) with very different elements from others.

Adolf Meyer Medallion

His central notion was what he called “psychobiology”. By this he meant that when diagnosing and treating psychiatric patients, one should look at all the physical, psychological, and social factors in the patient’s life: not just one of those aspects.

In practice this implied that according to him, therapists should not just observe a patient’s present mental symptoms. They should very carefully register her-or-his complete life history before starting therapy. So where possible, a therapist should always begin with an extensive patient interview.

In the second place, therapists should keep looking at the patient’s daily social environment and habits. They should always ask themselves if the patient should be helped to cope better with specific daily life challenges, as in the long run this might improve her-or-his mental health.

These principles may seem fairly self-evident today, but Meyer did a lot to propagate them.

He died in 1950 (nine years after retiring) at the age of 83.

Footnotes:

  • The bronze Adolf Meyer medallion (photo by an eBay seller) is one of a set of “Pathfinders in Psychiatry” collector medallions.
    It was commissioned in 1980 by the pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories, and is one in the APA Coin Collection (of the other APA, American Psychological Association) that comprises hundreds of such medallions.
    The backside of this Adolf Meyer medallion describes him with the text: “Neurologist, writer, teacher, creator of dynamic psychology, the father of American Psychobiology.
  • No, I’m afraid it’s not likely that we will ever see such a medallion showing your face or mine. But no doubt, Meyer himself would have explained to us that this doesn’t mean that our life is a failure   ;-) 
  • Just a few days ago I posted about the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane at Kankakee, opened in 1879.
    This asylum happens to have been one of the very first places where young Meyer got a job after his 1892 arrival in the USA: between 1893-1895 he worked there as a pathologist.

 


1991: Ernst Herbeck

September 11, 1991 – Schizophrenia patient and poet Ernst Herbeck (70) dies in the Austrian state mental hospital at Maria Gugging, near Vienna, that had been his home for over 45 years.

Ernst Herbeck

Herbeck was born in 1920 with a cleft palate that needed to be operated on several times during his life; speaking was not easy for him.

During World War II, when he had to serve briefly in the German army, he developed mental problems: he often felt possessed by alien forces invading his body and mind. In 1945 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When treatments such as shock therapy proved unsuccessful, he had to remain in the mental hospital permanently.

Self-expression

In 1960 the clinic’s psychiatrist, Leo Navratil (1921-2006) offered Herbeck a new way to express himself. He asked him to write down something about the word “morning”. Herbeck responded by writing a few poetic, associative lines. In translation:

 
Morning
 
In fall the wind-of-fairies
       align
as in the snow the
manes beat.
Blackbirds whistle afield
in the wind and eat.
 

Impressed and intrigued by this result, Navratil kept stimulating his patient to write. Over the years Herbeck wrote about 1,200 poems, all in a therapeutic setting, and only after Navratil had cued him with a specific word (such as an animal, a color, a body part) that should be the poem’s subject.

Herbeck became famous when in 1966 his psychiatrist published 83 of these poems in a book about schizophrenia and language (see footnote below). Since 1977 several collections of Herbeck’s work were published (in German) and he became quite popular, even appearing on Austrian TV.

Translation

In 2012 a striking selection of Herbeck’s poems was published in English by Ugly Duckling Presse: Everyone Has a Mouth. The poems were admirably translated by Gary Sullivan and Oya Ataman – no easy task, given Herbecks peculiar language with frequent use of non-existent words.

Everyone Has a Mouth

The book’s title came from The Mouth, one of the few instances where Herbeck in fact wrote more specifically about himself:

 
The Mouth
 
Not everyone has a mouth
some mouth is disqualified
or operated on. So it is with me
the doctor says everyone has
a mouth. the mouth is
especially for eating. The mouth
consists of the upper lip and the
lower lip, the phroat and the
flapper. Of the teeth in the upper jaw
and also in the lower jaw. Half of the
nose also belongs to the mouth. As well as
both of the earflaps and the index fin-
ger when one has stuck it into the mouth one
has.
 

It looks like the printed edition of these translated Herbeck poems has already sold out, but you can read the complete book online at the Ugly Duckling Presse website: Everyone Has a Mouth.

Footnotes:

  • The Landeskrankenhaus für Psychiatrie und Neurologie (the mental hospital at Maria Gugging where Herbeck lived for so many years) had been founded in 1885. It was closed down in 2007.
    At the site of the former hospital is now an art museum, the Museum Gugging. It has a large collection of artwork by psychiatric patients, including drawings by Ernst Herbeck.
  • Also worth viewing: Herbecks Versprechen, about a 2014 electronic sound performance based on a poem by Ernst Herbeck, by artist Karlheinz Essl (commissioned by the Museum Gugging, webpage and videos in German).
  • The original book in which psychiatrist Leo Navratil first presented Herbeck’s work to the public: Schizophrenie und Sprache. Zur Psychologie der Dichtung. Published by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1966. In the book, Herbeck was named with a pseudonym: Alexander.

 


1961: Spitting at Lenin

September 9, 1961 – A Russian woman, L.A. Smirnova (we don’t know her first name) succeeded in defiling the embalmed body of Lenin, Russia’s first communist leader.

Lenin's Body

Since Lenin died in 1924, his frequently-restored body is on public display in a glass case in a mausoleum on the Red Square in Moscow. The present marble-and-granite mausoleum building dates from 1930.

This September 9, 1961, Smirnova shattered the glass of Lenin’s sarcophagus with a stone that she had wrapped in a handkerchief. She then spat at Lenin’s body and cried “Take that, you bastard!

Needless to say, she was arrested immediately by the mausoleum guards. The incident was hushed up: it never made the news. We only know about it from a secret report that was declassified decades later.

Smirnova’s fate is unknown. Under Stalin (Lenin’s successor) she might have been executed, but this was the slightly more liberal Khrushchev era. So she may well have ended up locked away in some psychiatric institution. See also my post about how a few years later (1969) “political psychiatry” was made into official Soviet policy by KGB chief Yuri Andropov.

The Lenin Mausoleum

Similar Incidents

Over time, several people have tried to attack Lenin’s body. It remains difficult to judge which attacks were symbolic actions by serious political dissidents, and which were crazy desperate acts by mentally unbalanced people. Here are some more examples, perhaps of both varieties.

  • March 19, 1934: in the mausoleum, one Mitrofan Mikhailovich Nikitin tried to shoot at Lenin’s body. The guards killed him on the spot; in his pocket they found a letter protesting against communist rule.
  • November 5, 1957: one A.N. Romanov threw a bottle of ink to Lenin’s sarcophagus, without damaging anything.
  • March 20, 1959: an unidentified mausoleum visitor used a hammer to break the glass of both Lenin’s sarcophagus, and the one of Stalin (who between 1953-1961 was displayed at Lenin’s side). Both bodies were slightly damaged by shards.
  • May 24, 1962: a senior citizen, A.A. Ljutikov (or Ljutokov) tried to break Lenin’s sarcophagus with a stone just like Smirnova had done the year before. Since two years, he had been frantically writing protest letters to Russian newspapers and to Western embassies.
  • September 1, 1973: a suicide bomb attack near the mausoleum entrance caused the authorities to replace Lenin’s sarcophagus with a new one made of bulletproof glass.
  • March 15, 2010: one Sergej Krapencov climbed over the barriers around Lenin’s sarcophagus and from there began to scream, calling for demolition of the mausoleum and proper burial of Lenin’s body. He tried to pull a gun when militia arrested him. Later he was identified as a robbery suspect. Just a deranged criminal?
  • November 27, 2010: an unidentified mausoleum visitor threw a toilet roll and a booklet at the sarcophagus. After arrest by the militia, this person was brought to a psychiatric hospital.

Lenin's Glass Case

So, to what extent had all this to do with insanity? And (sorry, a question I cannot resist) to what extent can we say that this permanent exposition of Lenin’s body is a bit crazy itself?

I leave the answers (or the guesses) to you.

Footnotes:

  • Smirnova got a very brief mention in the Wikipedia entry for September 1961 (with a reference to a book by Vladimir A. Kozlov and others, Sedition: Everyday Resistance in the Soviet Union Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Yale University Press, 2011).
  • The other examples of attacks on Lenin’s body are from a list at a Czech page about the Lenin Mausoleum: Leninovo mauzoleum na Rudém náměstí v Moskvě, at a website about pyramids and similar tombs-of-the-famous. While that page looks reasonably well-informed, I had no way to double-check the incident list. So I cannot guarantee that all data are 100% correct.
    If you happen to have different or better information, please do add a comment.

 


1879: Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane

“Large, Airy and Light”

September 4, 1879 – Opening of the newly-built Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane, near the town of Kankakee.

It was one of those typical, huge 19th century asylums built to decently house seriously “insane” patients (from the depressed to the psychotic) who in that era could not yet really be cured. All those who for whatever reason could not take care of themselves, or who were just not tolerated in their community.

The Kankakee asylum, about 1890

Here is an original description of how the whole complex was planned. Behind the main building, it had several freestanding wards that were meant to look a bit like normal houses. I emphasized a few things here:

 
“The plan adopted embraces, as its central feature, the “hospital proper”, that is, a small center building for the accommodation of a limited number of officers, and one wing for patients of each sex; each wing built in two sections, containing one ward on each floor of each section, or twelve wards in all six for men and six for women. These wards are large, airy and light, with single dormitories and pleasant alcoves, used as day-rooms, dining-room, bathroom, etc. The windows are barred, and the doors have spring-locks, with bolts on the doors of all the sleeping apartments.
This entire building is fireproof, having brick arches turned over all the rooms as well as over the corridors. It is heated by indirect radiation from steam-coils in the basement.
The rear buildings constitute the axis, or center-line, of the entire establishment, and mark the separation of the sexes throughout. The further extension of the wings connected with the center building is blocked by roads. Two broad avenues, parallel with a line at right angles to the line of the wings, present the appearance of village streets, bordered with side-walks, and shaded by elms and maples. On each side of each of these two streets, the land is laid off in lots for building purposes.
Along the side of the road are laid the sewer pipes, also the gas and water mains, connected by branches with the detached wards. The streets are lighted, and fire-plugs have been provided in case of a conflagration.
The general appearance of the detached wards is similar to that of an English insane asylum upon the “block” plan, except that the wards are wholly detached, and not connected by corridors, as in England. They face each other, on opposite sides of the street, and resemble, to some extent, ordinary dwellings, with home-like surroundings, such as covered porticoes in front, shrubbery and flowers, the design being to get rid, to the utmost possible extent, of the air of an institution or any resemblance to ordinary asylum grounds.
 

“Unfortunate Accident”

In spite of the main building being “fireproof”, five years after the asylum’s opening something went terribly wrong:

 
“On the 18th of January, 1885, at 4 o’clock in the morning, a fire broke out in the south infirmary, heated by furnaces, in which seventeen patients lost their lives by suffocation.
This unfortunate accident led to the perfecting of what is perhaps the most complete system of fire protection now to be found in any institution in the United States.”
 

My guess is that the truly nasty thing here may have been, like in so many other asylum fires, that the windows were barred and the doors were bolted at night. This is why even in the 1960s, asylum fires could still turn into horrible catastrophes: see my post about the Shelton Fire (England, 1968).

Work!

Like all 19th-century asylums, this Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane soon developed an extensive system to have inmates do nearly all the manual work. They opened in-house workshops in 1887, and within a couple of years, 100 of the male and 80 of the female patients had already been put to work.

Broom WorkshopPacking newly-made brooms, Indiana, 1908
(no, this is NOT an asylum photo)

What did they do? A quote from the asylum trustees’ report from 1890:

 
“A great variety of useful trades are in successful operation, which tend to increase the self-sustaining power of the Hospital. All the brooms, baskets, rugs, mats, harness, tinware, mattresses, socks and rag carpets, that are used in the institution are produced here from the raw material; and the raw material itself, of the brooms, baskets and mats is also grown on its farm.
Almost the entire supply of underclothing for the men and women, outer clothing for the women, and a good share of the men’s jean suits, are made in the institution.
A scroll-saw, a turning-lathe, a blacksmith’s forge, and a small printing-press are kept in constant operation by the patients. All repairing of boots and shoes is done by them; also the repairing and regulating of clocks.
Three or four shoemakers, two tinners, one harness-maker, one clock-tinker, one or two type-setters, one copperplate engraver, two or three tailors, and one upholsterer and mattress-maker, are constantly at work. Rag-carpet making employs six or eight patients, and preparing raw material in various ways as many more.”
 

Later history

The asylum clearly flourished; very soon it had grown big enough to introduce (1886) its own in-house training school for nurses. In 1910 the name was changed to Kankakee State Hospital.

After the 1960s, when developments such as the rise of more effective medication began to make these large asylums superfluous, many similar institutions were closed. Often, obsolete asylum buildings were demolished: another Illinois asylum, the Northern Illinois State Mental Hospital, was torn down in 1993.

But this one in Kankakee still proudly stands. Here is the main building today, still with the same clock tower:

Former building of the Kankakee asylum today

In 1974, the last remaining mentally ill patients were moved out. At that point the name was changed to Shapiro Developmental Center. Since then, people here focus solely on the care for developmentally disabled persons: defined as “individuals with an intellectual disability who have not been successful living at home or in a community setting”.

I’m pretty sure they won’t have to make brooms anymore.

Footnotes:

  • All the above quotes (describing this asylum in its first years) are from the 1893 book Brief History of the Charitable Institutions of the State Of Illinois. It was published by the Committee of State Charitable Institutions in 1893, and is now online at the archive.org site.
  • I found two webpages that show some more old photos of the buildings of this asylum. One is at the Rootsweb genealogy site: Kankakee State Hospital. The other one is at the My Life in Postcards blog: Insane Asylum Kankakee Illinois State Hospital.
    Unfortunately all photos show just the grounds and the exterior of the buildings. It would have been really nice to also have a few old interior photos, so we could see what the wards looked like. In this case, no such photos could be found.

 


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