An awareness of the past

Posted on 27/03/2017 Category in Blog

After several years’ research and countless hours of scribbling I’ve just taken delivery of an advance copy of a book I’ve been writing with friend and colleague John Burt.  Coincidentally, the book arrived on Epilepsy Awareness Day.

Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots began following our M.Sc. dissertations in Genealogy at the University of Strathclyde and snowballed as a result of the rich sources and fascinating social history that emerged as we researched nineteenth century asylums.  We quickly realised that we were researching a very special subject – a taboo topic and one that most families endeavoured to forget if there was any hint of insanity in their family.

Thousands of men women and children were admitted as pauper patients to asylums in Britain – quickly to become a forgotten group of people shut away from the gaze of society and shunned as individuals to be feared.  In nineteenth century Britain, mental disorders were little understood and ‘mad-doctors’ or ‘alienists’ as they were called endeavoured to determine the cause of their ‘insanity’ in an attempt to cure or curtail it.  Conditions such as epilepsy and post-natal depression which today are cured or managed by modern medicine invariably led at that time to a stay in an asylum.

The nineteenth century saw progress in the medical understanding of epilepsy but the condition was considered incurable.  A diagnosis of epilepsy, as well as having a physical and biological impact on the body and brain, also affects the economic, psychological and social aspects of an individual’s life.  This impact would have been all the greater during the nineteenth century when medication was limited and the prospects for individuals with uncontrolled seizures were bleak.  In 1857, Sir Charles Locock (1799–1875) discovered the anti-convulsant and sedative qualities of potassium bromide and it was regularly used to treat epileptic seizures and nervous disorders until the discovery of phenobarbital in 1912.

Despite early advances in the understanding of epilepsy, the prognosis for patients remained unfavourable and many became long term patients and died in asylums.  Epileptic patients were admitted occasionally hoping for a cure but generally because they could no longer be cared for within the home or workhouse.  There is evidence from asylum case notes that an asylum was a better option than the workhouse, particularly if the asylum had purpose built provision for those suffering from seizures.

Despite an improved understanding of epilepsy in the nineteenth century, reading asylum accounts of epileptic patients is particularly harrowing.  When sisters, Esther and Violet Gosling arrived at Parkside asylum in 1894 they were having frequent seizures and were unable to take care of themselves.  Esther expressed a wish to enter the asylum because she wanted to be cured – which wasn’t likely, but, it must have provided her with hope.  Esther and Violet were relieved from Parkside back to their family home after a six month stay during which time they received no treatment or cure.  Both sisters died within two years from seizures.

Another pair of siblings admitted to the asylum were Mary Jane and John Robert Percival.  Mary Jane was only 10 when she arrived at Parkside in 1890 diagnosed with both Imbecility and Epilepsy.  She had previously been resident at Altrincham Workhouse but her seizures (which were attributed to fright) led to a transfer to the county asylum.  Her younger brother John Robert was only 7 when he was also admitted to the same asylum in 1898 suffering from the same symptoms.  It is unlikely that the two met – segregated by the asylum system on opposite sides of the building.  Both died in Parkside from pulmonary tuberculosis in their early 20s.

Researching and writing ‘Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots’ has been an emotional journey but one we’re glad we embarked upon.  Research into epilepsy remains ongoing, but today the prognosis for those who have the condition is much better.  Improved medication, understanding and support is now available and epileptics are no longer shunned from society or locked away because of their seizures.  The Epilepsy Society has been active for 125 years and continues to fundraise to provide life-changing services to those with the disorder.Book Cover


MelissaSeptember 10, 2017  at 12:53 am

This book looks absolutely fascinating and the history horrific. I look forward to reading it soon.

    KathySeptember 10, 2017  at 12:20 pm

    Hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed researching and writing it.

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