Victorian Asylum Medical History

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Medical History, 2002, 46: 175-196 Madness, Suicide and the Victorian Asylum: Attempted Self-Murder in the Age of Non-Restraint ANNE SHEPHERD and DAVID WRIGHT* Introduction On 20 July 1870, Catherine Tyrrell found herself transferred to another asylum. The 32-year-old nurse suffering from melancholia had previously been a private patient in Bethlem Hospital; but, having had her twelve months expire at that institution,' she was conveyed across the metropolis and into the bucolic countryside and county asylum of Buckinghamshire.2 Up to this point, Catherine had had a long and sad history of suicide attempts and food refusal. Indeed, when she was transferred the following year, this time from Buckinghamshire to the Surrey County Asylum…show more content…
George Savage, himself an asylum medical superintendent, admitted that he did not believe that "more than five per cent" of admissions were "actively suicidal", which he defined as "patients who have made serious attempts on their lives, and [were] likely to repeat them"."1 Using his more restrictive definition, 650 admissions (5 per cent of 13,000 individuals admitted annually by 1881)12 were "actively suicidal". Yet, even readjusting the numbers downward, the returns still suggest that fewer than 20 out of the 650 "actively suicidal" admissions successfully took their lives in institutions for the insane in 1881, compared with over 1,500 extramural suicides. Why was there such an apparent discrepancy between the fate of suicidal lunatics in the community and in asylums? Few detailed studies of the history of suicide in England existed before the 1980s when a series of excellent publications rescued the subject from the periphery of social and medical history. Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy demonstrated how suicide was secularized during the course of the early modern era. By the early nineteenth century, there had been a perceptible shift from suicide as…show more content…
Commonly known as asylum medical superintendents, alienists, or medico-psychologists, these medical men began to claim expertise in the treatment of insanity. The care and treatment of the insane had not always been a medical prerogative, and much debate ensued in the early nineteenth century over the alleged efficacy of the medical approach.50 However, the medical profession eventually succeeded in securing a monopoly over the formal treatment of the insane through the 1845 Asylums Act, which stipulated that all public asylums in England and Wales had to be run by a qualified medical practitioner. The men who acceded to the post of asylum superintendent consolidated their position by publishing treatises on insanity, forming professional associations to promote their common interests, and establishing a journal for the dissemination of articles
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