Is madness contagious?

Posted on 11/03/2017 Tag by , , Category in Blog

I have spent the last few years researching the rich archive of case notes for patients admitted to asylums in nineteenth century Britain and Ireland.  Many people have commented that they cannot imagine why I would be so interested in such a grim topic – am I mad myself?  Perhaps I am – but the research has led me to co-write a book on the subject entitled ‘Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth Century Britain and Ireland’, which I hope people will enjoy.

As a genealogist, I am naturally interested in any source of information that provides details about the identity and lives of others in the past.  And, asylum case notes are a particularly rich source of ancestral information including photographs, hereditary illness within family and importantly first person accounts of how mental health disorders affected their lives and wellbeing.

The majority of genealogical sources provide a snapshot of a family on a specific day whether that be a baptism, marriage, burial or a census return.  Medical case notes however, allow us to follow the lives of individuals on a daily or weekly basis for as long as they remained within the asylum.  A good example of this is the case of Esther Eliza Taylor who was admitted to Parkside Asylum in Macclesfield, Cheshire in 1887. Her case notes reveal that Esther was wilful, stubborn and abusive towards her mother who was clearly at the end of her tether.  However, as well as providing details of Esther’s mental health problems, the case notes also give details of her father who is described as ‘an inveterate drunk who had convulsions as a child’.  Similar convulsions affected all of his children.

Hundreds of thousands of individuals were admitted to lunatic asylums in the nineteenth century.  Many were discharged deemed to be recovered, but others remained there for life.  Due to social stigma, episodes of insanity within a family are quickly ‘forgotten’ or brushed under the carpet.  Subsequent generations may have no idea that their ancestor was once admitted to an asylum.  But, for those of us with an inquiring mind, and let’s face it, most genealogists would describe themselves as nosy, these records are available for research.

The quickest way to determine if you had a ‘lunatic’ ancestor is to check the UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912 on Ancestry.  The patient case notes are held at county archives, but some collections have been digitised and are available to view online.  Cheshire Archives and Local Studies have made their collection of Parkside Asylum case notes freely available using this method.

In order to highlight what a rich source of information these records are, my co-author Dr John Burt and myself will be giving a joint presentation at Who Do You Think You Are Live at the NEC in Birmingham on 7 April 2017.

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