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The Cruel Gift of Love – Stirling District Asylum

Layla Essat is a Masters student in Gender Studies at the University of Stirling.  This is the first of a series of articles on her project placement investigating the Stirling District Asylum archive held by the University of Stirling.

Stirling District Lunatic Asylum first opened its doors in 1869. Located in Larbert, many of its patients had been transferred from the large Royal and Private Asylums in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Like many institutions of the time, the asylum kept extensive handwritten records, logging and chronicling all under their care. These records for a long time remained stored away and inaccessible but have now found a new home in our very own University archive.

Beginning investigation into the records, I was fairly uncertain of what I was going to find. Undertaking this project in relation to my current Gender Studies Masters at Stirling, my only initial guiding focus was to explore the collection with the aim of discovering the situation of women. With the collection as a whole spanning over a hundred years, it was immediately apparent that a large task lay ahead. In response, I refined my focus to the years 1900 – 1910.

Diagnosis of GPI in admission register.

Diagnosis of GPI in admission register.

Ploughing my way through hundreds of pages of admissions registers, a familiar phrase kept popping up as “supposed cause of insanity.” What was this G.P of the Insane and why was it wholly prevalent in married women and men? Immediately fascinated and I was intent on learning more about the female patients this affected. With a quick input into google, I soon found the gendered relationship of this illness opening up.

General Paresis otherwise known as General Paralysis of the insane was first coined in the 1830s. As the name suggests, records state that patients at the asylum suffered from broad and vague symptoms, including fatigue, headaches and insomnia. Similarly, family members reported changes in personality, concentration and memory was severely impaired. They all suffered from slurred speech and facial and bodily tremors. Most notably, and highly typical of this disease, was the presence of delusions. This disease was syphilis.

Photograph of female patient taken on admission to Stirling District Asylum.

Photograph of female patient taken on admission to Stirling District Asylum.

The most socially revealing symptom could be seen in the patient’s eyes and was termed Argyll Robertson pupils. Often termed “prostitute’s pupils”, they were large and unreceptive to changes in light. This discovery proved key. From this I speculated a connection between the use of prostitutes by men and the then inevitable transmission of this illness to their wives. The picture suddenly became much bigger and from here, I begin to question who the real victims in this situation were. In an age where a woman’s marital duty was to provide sex, it would prove highly difficult for these women to protect themselves from the inadvertent dangers of commercial sex. Given that symptoms could take up to 20 years to manifest, innocent wives were likely to pay the price of their husband’s pre-marital sexual encounters as well as any current ones. However, my research revealed that perhaps women caught it first- hand. The women in this asylum all came from some of the poorest sections of society. Marriage was often undertaken out of need to ensure financial security and very less often for love. “Casual Prostitutes” were women who engaged in prostitution as a side line to supplement household income, and often pushed to do so by their husbands.

This condition was otherwise termed The Great Imitator for its habit to share its symptoms with many other illnesses. I believe that this issue was far more widespread than it would first appear and suspect that many others with G.P of the Insane simply went misdiagnosed. Given the sheer number of male sufferers observed in the admissions register, I highly doubt that diagnosis of female patients with this condition to be accurate. I encountered several instances where diagnosis was changed upon death. The majority of women I encountered died in the asylum, and of the very few allowed home, prognosis would dictate that they would have died bedbound soon after.

Female case book containing detailed notes on patients admitted to the asylum.

Female case book containing detailed notes on patients admitted to the asylum.

We will perhaps never know the full plight of these women. However, the bottom lines remains; as long as society maintained the notion of a male right and need for satisfaction of sexual energies, the transmission of venereal diseases amongst prostitutes, innocent wives and their philandering husbands would continue. Bluntly, male demand directly facilitated female harm.

Layla Essat, May 2016

Continuity of care #4

From Iowa to Alloa, a patient’s story…

Last week David, one of our project volunteers, came upon a particularly unusual entry in the earliest admission register for Stirling District Asylum. While transcribing the information recorded in the volume onto a database which will greatly improve access to the material he noted that the “Previous place of abode” given for James Dempster, a patient admitted to the hospital in August 1881 was Iowa.  The normal locations recorded for patients are the towns and villages of Central Scotland, not the American mid-west. The register recorded James’ occupation as “Farmer”, the Parish to which chargeable” as Alloa and gave his “Supposed cause of insanity” as “Sunstroke.” It also noted he remained in the hospital until February 1909 when he was briefly discharged before being re-admitted in March 1909.

Armed with the information contained in the admission register we were able to locate James’ case notes in the asylum’s case books, shedding further light on his case. Unusually for the Stirling Asylum James was recorded as being a private patient. His uncle provided an account of James’ unstable behaviour while staying at the family home in Clackmannan, where he threatened both his sister and a servant.  Described as suffering from “recurrent mania” James was admitted to the asylum on 20 August 1881. His case notes recorded that James “went to America at 24 years of age. Has been insane probably since the age of 32 as a result of sunstroke and has never recovered. Had been three years in a US asylum before return.” James’ farming skills were put to good use in the asylum and he was put to work on the hospital farm. The hard physical labour took its toll and by 1901 he had been moved to the less strenuous surroundings of the hospital garden.  Described as being a “good worker, very quiet and no trouble” James spent much of his time in the grounds of the hospital, a note written in September 1909 recording that he “takes a great interest in the small stream beyond the house and says that fairy children play there and gets wildly excited if a horse is driven through the stream as it may kill his fairy children.”

James’ story is one of thousands contained in the 50 volumes of case books for Stirling District Asylum which cover the years 1869-1918, many of which are brought to life by the evocative photographs of the patients which are pasted into the pages of the volumes.  The fantastic work being done by our team of volunteers who are cleaning and cataloguing the asylum records is making these stories accessible for the first time.

The 50 volumes of case books for Stirling District Asylum covering the years 1869-1918 contain thousands of stories.

The 50 volumes of case books for Stirling District Asylum covering the years 1869-1918 contain thousands of stories.

Continuity of care #2

This week we transferred the first of the Stirling District Asylum case books which have been cleaned and catalogued by our project team to the archives store. Another element of the project to prepare the archives of the Asylum for public use is the creation of a database of patients who were admitted to the hospital. The asylum’s patient registers record details of the admission and discharge of those treated in the hospital and this information is being carefully recorded and transcribed by our project team.

The registers provide fascinating information relating to the lives of the patients recording their age, marital status, previous occupation and place of abode. Medical details such as bodily condition, form of mental disorder and ‘supposed cause of insanity’ are also recorded. Alongside the standard medical reasons given some of the more unusual ‘supposed causes’ noted in the hospital’s first register, beginning in 1869, include ‘loneliness and religious contemplation’, ‘excessive use of ardent spirits’, ‘disappointment in love’ and ‘severe blow on temple from a golf ball.’ Another reason given is ‘Sunstroke’ – this however, was for a former soldier who suffered it while stationed in India. The registers also note if patients were previously admitted to the hospital and/or transferred to other institutions, which provides valuable information when trying to trace the movement of patients through the network of Scottish asylums. 

The patients registers are a source of detailed social and medical information.

The patient registers are a source of detailed social and medical information.

The creation of this database of asylum patients will be of great benefit in a number of ways. It will provide a quick and efficient way of searching the records for individuals, assisting us in responding to genealogical enquiries. It will also reduce the actual handling of these old and damaged volumes, contributing to their long-term preservation. And for academic researchers it also allows the possibility of re-using the large amount of tabular / statistical information recorded in their research allowing, for example, breakdowns of the patient population by occupation or ‘place of abode.’

Continuity of care #1

A gap in the Scottish archival record has been filled with the transfer of the archives of Stirling District Asylum to the University of Stirling. Part of a larger transfer of historical records to the University Archives by NHS Forth Valley, the records of Stirling District Asylum (later known as Bellsdyke Hospital) provide a detailed account of the care and treatment of mental health patients in Central Scotland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This semester we have begun work on a project with a team of student volunteers (thanks Catherine, David, Ian and Jennifer!) to prepare these records for public consultation in our archives reading room.

The case books contain enclosures such as letters relating to the treatment of patients.

The case books contain enclosures such as letters relating to the treatment of patients.

The project team will be working on a set of 50 volumes of case books which provide detailed records of the care and condition of patients in the hospital beginning in 1869. These volumes were working documents, regularly updated by medical staff. They include many enclosures relating to the treatment of patients – both medical records such as temperature charts and personal material such as correspondence. From the 1890s onwards the case books also include photographs of the patients which are pasted onto the pages of the volumes, a common practice also seen in contemporary case books from other Scottish asylums.

From the 1890s onwards photographs of patients were pasted into the pages of the volumes.

From the 1890s onwards photographs of patients were pasted into the pages of the volumes.

Basic cleaning of the volumes is being carried out, with dust and surface dirt being removed using conservation-quality natural hair brushes. The enclosures, many of which are secured to the pages of the volumes with metal clips and pins are being carefully removed to be stored alongside the volumes. Further cleaning of the pages of the volumes is then carried out where required using chemical sponges – conservation-quality cleaners which carefully remove the dust and grime which has accumulated over more than a century of use and storage.

Surface dust being removed from the pages of a case book with a brush.

Surface dust being removed from the pages of a case book with a brush.

Once cleaned and catalogued these volumes will be made available for use in our archives reading room. Academic researchers across a range of disciplines will find a wealth of social, historical and medical material in the records. Comparative studies with other Scottish Asylums will also be possible for the first time. The collection will also be of interest to family historians, opening up a new source of genealogical information.