A casebook of Victorian psychiatric patients

I’ve just discovered that Amazon has an excerpt, detailing three patients, from the book Presumed Curable: An Illustrated Casebook of Victorian Psychiatric Patients in Bethlem Hospital (ISBN 1871816483) as part of its ‘look inside’ feature.

The book includes photographs of patients from the Bethlem Royal Hospital, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, from the end of the 19th century just as photography was being used clinically.

Early photographs of psychiatric patients were originally taken in an attempt to see if there were any obvious visual similarities between people with mental illness.

While this turned out to be largely futile, it’s left an important historical record.

The book has numerous photograph of patients, each accompanied by the person’s medical notes.

They are quite fascinating, for many reasons, some of which were outlined in Sean Spence’s review of the book in the British Medical Journal:

Such a project throws up a number of questions. What do we expect to see in a book of such photographs? Staring eyes, torn clothes, drooling lips? Are we surprised if they appear unremarkable? Are we any the wiser if the photographs show ordinary people in everyday dress? And is being identified posthumously really a means by which one’s “voice is heard” or “dignity accorded,” as the authors suggest? Which of us would choose to be remembered in this way? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how would an “average” Victorian wish to be remembered? It is noticeable that 16 patients avert their gaze.

The three case studies in themselves are a fascinating read and give us a glimpse into a bygone age of inpatient psychiatry.

As this was the age before antipsychotics, the first effective treatments for psychosis, it also harks back to a bygone era of madness.

Link to excerpt of Presumed Curable.
Link to review in the BMJ.

One thought on “A casebook of Victorian psychiatric patients”

  1. You do know “antipsychotics” do not really exist? The term is used to mimic antibiotic. Microbes being detectable and measureable.
    psychosis is in the eye of the beholder, there is no lab test, nothing to culture in a petre dish and look under a microscope, or measure in scientific terms.
    Any medicine from alcohol to opiates, could be called a antipsychotic if the psychiatrist beholder can no longer perceive their prisoner to be psychotic.

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