Archive for June, 2011

Biography and its Place in the History of Psychology and Psychiatry

Biography has often been dismissed within academic circles, regarded as an unsophisticated approach to history. However, a recent one-day symposium at the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine begged to differ, and highlighted the importance of the topic in a field attempting to understand and explore the human mind. Indeed, biography can help us investigate the methods of these human sciences themselves, as Professor Daniel Todes indicated in a paper on the well-known experiments of Ivan Pavlov. For Todes, we cannot fully appreciate Pavlov’s methods in insolation from the man himself for, as Pavlov declared: “That which I see in dogs I immediately transfer to myself.”

More questions were raised by the day than answered. According to Dr Mathew Thomson, this is not an issue, but rather an important element of the biographical approach. Thomson suggested that biography is a way to challenge the very idea of a firm answer, and indicate the complexities of any historical topic. By way of example, he explored the volume of biographical essays on psychoanalyst David Eder, published after Eder’s death by a variety of contributors. What strikes Thomson is the sheer lack of biographical coherence in these essays, for, naturally, Eder meant very different things to different people. Moreover, for many of these contributors, psychoanalysis was not simply a method used by the analyst. Instead, it became regarded as something expressed in the personality and presence of the analyst himself, making biography vital to understanding its very nature.

One problem with biography, Dr Peter Hegarty suggested, is the struggle a writer has with determining what is appropriate: how should we write about other people’s lives? Such a question is many-sided, for it affects both the historian and his or her subject. Two papers approached this directly, exploring the use of biographical information in case histories, in the late nineteenth-century asylum in England and two early twentieth-century institutions for juvenile delinquency in Romania. Both indicated the way certain aspects of an individual’s history might be especially highlighted by researchers (in both history and psychiatry) in order to draw a particular conclusion. Yet, as this fascinating day constantly impressed on all who attended, many different conclusions might indeed be possible, and a psychiatric record only gives us one tiny facet of the very varied lives and experiences of individuals.

Visit the conference website, where it is hoped that abstracts of papers will soon be available.

L0022519 Dogs with their keepers at the Physiology Department

Pavlov’s dogs with their keepers at the Physiology Department, Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, St Petersburg, 1904

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images


In the Spotlight: A.W. Pugin

With due respect to those who have been put In the Spotlight so far, it cannot be said that any of them are actually household names. We warned about this at the outset of the series. Only a few of the patients we are featuring emerged from relative obscurity in their own lifetimes, and (given that all were admitted before 1939) their stars have long since waned. Last month’s post is a case in point. George Gilbert Scott Junior’s architectural achievements warrant recognition; yet who remembers him today? That said, the contemporary profile of this month’s subject, like Scott Junior an architect (and like him a convert to Roman Catholicism), is a little higher than usual. His principal works (the clock tower at Westminster popularly known as ‘Big Ben’ and the spire of Tolbooth St John’s among them) continue to define the skylines of British cities. Of him, Scott’s more famous father could write, ‘He was our leader and our most able pioneer’.1 His name, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, is virtually synonymous with the Gothic Revival.

This is not the place to attempt a biography of the man (interested readers may follow the footnotes to this piece to find one), or to do anything other than place on record (as biographers have previously done) his five and a half weeks’ residence at Bethlem in the summer of 1852, suffering what a contemporary psychiatrist with access to Pugin’s Victorian medical notes has described as ‘mania without psychotic symptoms’ (F30.1 in the 1992 edition of International Classification of Diseases), and in a state of collapse following a sustained period of overwork. At one point Pugin’s Bethlem doctor, Alexander Morison, described how he ‘got him to make a sketch of his church at Ramsgate’ – St Augustine’s, on which he had been working since 1845 – but ‘so soon as he had completed [the sketch], he tore it up’. No mental improvement was recorded by Morison, yet at the end of July Pugin was discharged at the request, and into the care, of his friends and family. He died within seven weeks of leaving the Hospital, the cause of death recorded as ‘convulsions followed by coma’.2 His life, though short, left a legacy which can still be seen today in the built heritage of Britain. It is appropriate, perhaps, that the once-derelict house in Ramsgate in which he lived and died, The Grange, has been restored by a conservation charity and is now available for holiday lettings.

1 Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (Penguin, 2008), p. 1.

2 ibid. p. 492

Bethlem Sunfayre 2011

The Annual Bethlem Sunfayre takes place this year on Saturday 2 July, from 12 – 5pm. As usual, there will be a host of activities, stalls and games, including Bethlem’s Got Talent: a talent show contest with some amazing surprises! The day will offer an opportunity to view the new collaborative exhibition between the Archives and Museum and the Bethlem Gallery, Art From Ephemera, as well as an exhibition on William Kurelek, including a rare opportunity to view the painting Out of the Maze, featured in this month’s In the Frame.

In addition, both the Archives and Museum and the Bethlem Gallery will be putting on a host of art and history related events. Throughout the day, there will be regular opportunities to enjoy a guided historical tour of the site (including an opportunity to view the board room), explore the nineteenth century hospital casebooks, and learn more about the striking portraits of patients taken by society photographer Henry Hering in the 1850s. The last session begins at 3pm.

In the art studio, artist-led taster sessions will run throughout the afternoon, on the hour, from 1-5pm, on a first-come, first-served basis. Refreshments and children’s games continue the fun on offer, while for those keen not to miss out on Wimbledon, the ladies final will be showing on a large screen in the Community Centre!

Date: Saturday 2 July, 12-5pm

Venue: Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent, BR3 3BX (nearest station Eden Park)

Admission: Free! All welcome

Barrington (800x539)

Barrington, Sunfayre (2010)

Art from Ephemera: new Exhibition at Bethlem Gallery

In this joint exhibition, between the Bethlem Art Studio and Bethlem Archives and Museum, artists combine use of the everyday and ‘throwaway’. Their art uses items selected from the Museum’s collection of ephemera.

Ephemera are the bits and pieces of everyday life – postcards, stamps, tickets, receipts and doodles – that normally wouldn’t merit a second glance. Artists, however, have used the ephemeral to explore themes of memory, loss and the beauty of the overlooked.

The gallery is an extension of Bethlem Arts Studios, which provide weekly creative sessions for patients within Bethlem Royal Hospital’s Occupational Therapy programme. Michaela Ross, Art Coordinator at the Bethlem explains “The exhibition grew out of the desire to pay attention to objects that might often be overlooked or undervalued. In a world where people and things are put into boxes and categories, the artists have chosen to make objects and images that are not so easily labeled or contained.”

Artists include Phil Baird, Jane Fradgley, Sue, Terence Wilde, Katy Phillips, Peter, James Tanner, Sebastian Jones and Sue Morgan.

Exhibition opens 22 June, 3-6pm, all welcome.

Exhibition continues: 23 June – 22 July, Wednesday – Friday 11am – 6pm and Satuday 2 July, 12-5pm.

Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent, BR3 3BX

Nearest British Rail Station: Eden Park

Ephemera1final small

A Visit to the Science Museum Stores

The recent meeting of London’s Museums of Health and Medicine  gave some of our staff a fascinating opportunity to explore the Science Museum’s stores  in a pre-meeting tour. Housed in the former headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank, Blythe House is a huge warren of beautifully tiled corridors, of which the basement and most of the ground floor house the history of medicine collection. Most of this enormous and fascinating assortment of objects was collected by Henry Wellcome, whose life and work is the subject of the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

The history of medicine collection includes a remarkable array of exhibits, including two whole rooms dedicated to prosthetic limbs! The museum uses the former purpose of the building well; a secure bank vault, for example, houses the historical surgery equipment. “Everything in this room can kill you!” warned our guide, as he turned the massive wheel on the solid vault door.

Scattered throughout this vast collection are a large number of items relating to the history of psychiatry and psychology, and the Museum employs a specialist Curator of Psychology, supported by the British Psychological Society. You might remember our post earlier this year about the Psychoanalysis exhibition, which included some of these exhibits. As well as antique asylum equipment, the collection contains items relating to early psychological testing, such as IQ test puzzles, and there is a ‘Psychology Trail’ around the Museum galleries. To explore the Science Museum’s History of Psychology and Medicine collections further, click here.


Birdcage from the Sussex Lunatic Asylum: Science Museum, London

In the Frame for June 2011

For this month’s In the Frame we have chosen William Kurelek’s Out of the Maze, the rarely-seen sequel to one of the best known artworks on exhibition in Bethlem Museum, The Maze. Born and bred within Canada’s Ukrainian community, William Kurelek (1927-1977) spent seven of his most formative years in England. He arrived while in his mid-twenties in 1952 with “two express purposes”, as he later put it. “One was to complete my art schooling – at that point in my life I was already convinced my vocation was to be an artist – the other was to get into a [psychiatric] hospital where I might find a cure for my chronic depression and my inexplicable eye pains”.1 The day after his arrival, he admitted himself to the Maudsley Hospital in London, having read of its reputation in a Montreal library prior to embarking on his travels.2 The Maze was a product of Kurelek’s time at the Maudsley. It depicts the artist lying partially decapitated in a wheat field, his skull flipped forward to reveal a series of compartments containing various memories, fears and obsessions. A white rat lies trapped and senseless in the centre of the picture.

Many years after his recovery from psychiatric illness (which he attributed not to his hospital treatment but to his conversion to Christianity and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church), Kurelek – by then an artist of some repute in his native country – executed a sequel to The Maze and returned to the Maudsley to present it as a gift. Out of the Maze displays a narrative sequence which takes up where The Maze left off. In left foreground, a bisected skull lies abandoned in the Canadian prairie, its unwilling occupant having long since escaped. In the middle distance, a young family has found a picnic spot, and are saying grace together. Kurelek has placed his own family into this idealized scene: himself, his wife Jean, and his four children. He is truly at home now, patently at peace with himself, his family, his native landscape, and with the God to whom he prays.

Nevertheless, the scene is not altogether idyllic. A mushroom cloud at the top right of the picture presages impending disaster. It should be remembered that Kurelek lived all his adult years in the shadow of the Cold War. His belief that the earth would be shortly ravaged by nuclear conflagration, and its beauty destroyed, was at least plausible in its time. His particular sense of vocation as an artist grew out of this conviction, as if  in response to a call issued by Dr Morris Carstairs, formerly his doctor at the Maudsley, in an article on art and psychiatry:

“A few years ago [wrote Carstairs] the writer had occasion to treat a young, self-taught Canadian painter, whose pictures showed certain affinities with those of Bosch, except that where Bosch was obsessed with the imminent destruction of humanity, this patient was for a time preoccupied exclusively with his own tortured ruminations, his own nightmarish fantasies and his sense of being trapped and helpless…Where, I wonder, is the contemporary artist who can turn his innocent eye upon the nightmare realities of this era with its threat of nuclear annihilation? We need a Goya or a Hieronymous Bosch today to quicken our sense of urgency of the human predicament before it is too late.”3

Last month Out of the Maze went on display in the Museum alongside The Maze and Nightmare, where it is likely to stay until at least October 2011. Die-hard Kurelekistas may want to start saving their pennies in order to visit the major Kurelek retrospective exhibition planned to open in Canada in 2012.

[1] Kurelek, Someone With Me (McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1980), page 7.

[2] Kurelek, Someone With Me (Cornell University Press: Ithaca NY, 1973), page 289; (McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1980), page 8.

[3] Kurelek, Someone With Me (Cornell University Press: Ithaca NY, 1973), pages 521-522; (McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1980), pages 174-175.

Out of the Maze

White to Play and Mate in Two

Four months ago we alerted readers to the fact that Tate Britain’s Watercolour exhibition included a work by Richard Dadd entitled The Child’s Problem, said to be one of his “most incomprehensible”. Since then we have been made aware of comment on the blogosphere on the chess-playing aspect of the puzzle. By reconstructing the places occupied by the pieces on the chessboard, it is possible to speculate that the child’s precise problem might have been whether it would prove necessary for him to cheat in order to beat his somnolent opponent.

Watercolour continues until 21 August; and the Richard Dadd exhibition at Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham until 2 October.