Shrewsbury School is one of the oldest public schools in England and it makes much of being the institution that schooled Charles Darwin and introduced him to science.
While the famous naturalist was certainly a pupil there he probably never set foot inside the building that the famous school now occupies because during Darwin’s time the building was Kingsland Lunatic Asylum.
As the historian L.D. Smith noted, the Kingsland Asylum was quite unique in its day. Rather than create a separate institution for ‘pauper lunatics’ – as was common at the time – the authorities in the county of Shropshire had decided to license the Shrewsbury ‘House of Industry’ as a private asylum at the same time.
The workhouse and asylum was opened in 1784 to accommodate paupers and cases of “lunacy”, “sickness” and “single women in a state of pregnancy”.
By 1844 the Kingsland Asylum contained nearly 90 residents who lived under a tough regime:
Payment of one-sixth part of their week’s work is made to all except in cases of misconduct, and punishments are given to all who profanely curse or swear, who appear to be in liquor, who are refractory or disobedient to the reasonable orders of the steward or matrons, who pretend sickness, make excuse to avoid working, destroy or spoil material or implements, or are guilty of lewd, immoral or disorderly behaviour.
But it’s not wholly inappropriate that Darwin has become posthumously linked to an asylum building as he had a powerful, if not fraught, relationship with psychiatry and mental illness.
Darwin reportedly showed ‘a personal interest in the plight of the mentally ill and an astute empathy for psychiatric patients’ but founded a view of madness as a form of degeneration that was enthusiastically adopted by eugenicists.
Thankfully, this strain of Darwinian influence has long since died, but both evolution and genetics remain important foundations of modern cognitive science although the role of evolutionary psychology in explaining mental illness remains controversial.
Curiously, Darwin himself also suffered from poor health for most of his life that has never been fully explained but clearly had many aspects that would be diagnosed as psychiatric disorders today.
So I quite like the fact that Darwin’s picture is proudly displayed inside an old asylum. It’s an ambiguous tribute and reminds us of his own ambivalent relationship with the unsettled mind.