Asylum Science: Conference in October

We’ve recently heard about an interesting event – and a new website and blog – devoted to “asylum science“, with a particular focus on the nineteenth century and the former West Riding Asylum in Wakefield. The organisers are holding a conference on 19 October, which aims to challenge the view of asylums as “scientifically-moribund backwaters” by looking at the use and reception of science within these institutions. The focus on West Riding stems from its role as an investigative laboratory in the later nineteenth century, as physicians there attempted to incorporate neurological and physiological research into their work. Many of the papers in the conference will reflect on these endeavours.

In looking at the programme, it is clear that many of the scientific endeavours discussed are those that would still be recognised as such today: the development of technology, post-mortem dissection, medication, and chemical testing. These areas of research have often been ignored, particularly in the nineteenth century, and it is a useful contribution to bring such experimental approaches into the public eye. However, something else that immediately sparks our interest is to wonder what the organisers actually intend by the term “science”. Did their historical actors view scientific research in the same way that we do today? Or did the domain of science often encompass, for them, many things that we would be dubious about classifying in such a way?

All Bethlem’s superintendents in the late nineteenth century would have regarded themselves as men of science. They were proud of their role, as they saw it, at the forefront of psychiatric research and education, as well as care and treatment. When George Savage played an instrumental role in the foundation of an examination for non-specialist doctors in the topic of “nervous diseases” in 1886, he grandly hoped that such would aid Bethlem to, eventually, ” make itself the scientific and social centre of the English lunacy world.”1 Yet Savage also had, perhaps, a broader view of what science was than many of us today might assume. For he and many of his colleagues, science simply meant “organised inquisitiveness”, an approach which allowed for the acceptance of a wide variety of methods of investigation within psychiatry, in addition to neurological and physiological research, including experimental psychology, “psychic analysis” (as he termed it), psychical research and hypnotism.2

It is interesting, then, to look at the various experiments in hypnosis at Bethlem – previously discussed on this blog – as an example of asylum science, reminding us that science itself is not necessarily a fixed body of knowledge, but something defined by those who practice it. In the late nineteenth century, a number of psychiatrists were interested in expanding the boundaries of what that might include.

1 George Savage, Annual Report of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for 1886, p. 44

2. George Savage, ‘The Presidential Address delivered at the Opening Meeting of the Section of Psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine on October 22nd, 1912’, Journal of Mental Science, 59 (1913), 14-27

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