These Photos Give A Glimpse Of How Mental Illness Was Treated In The Past

A fascinating window into the past.

The West Riding Lunatic Asylum closed in 1995, but for over a hundred years, it served as a hospital for the mentally ill.


Mike Kirby

The asylum first opened in 1818 as a means of treating "paupers" suffering from mental illness. It was one of the Victorian era's largest and most famous institutions in England, housing hundreds of the mentally ill.

These photos, taken around 1869, document some of the patients who resided at Wakefield in the mid-late 19th century. 

You may note that many photographs are inscribed with a diagnosis of "mania." This was a catch-all term that relied on the Greek word for "frenzy" or "madness." 

"General paralysis of the insane."

Wellcome Library, London

General paralysis of the insane, also known as GPI, was usually caused by syphilis.

Prisoner with his head held up by warden.

Wellcome Library, London

"Monomania of pride."

Wellcome Library, London

This woman was said to suffer from what we might now call delusions of grandeur.

Prisoner with his head in a restraint.

Wellcome Library, London

"Consecutive dementia."

Wellcome Library, London

"Consecutive dementia" was described in a 1916 text as "a state of permanent and incurable weak-mindedness following an acute psychosis." This patient may well have been catatonic.

"Acute melancholia."

Wellcome Library, London

What we now know as major depression.

"Man restrained by warders."

Wellcome Library, London

You'll notice that none of these pictures have names or ages or anything that might give any hint as to the humanity of these people: They are instead reduced to their illnesses, labeled as the diseases the asylum believed robbed them of their reason.

One might argue that little has changed when it comes to the stigma attached to serious mental illness: These diseases are widely misunderstood and, consequently, those who suffer from them are often labeled as their diseases. How many times have you heard someone say in hushed tones of someone they know with a mental illness that "he's bipolar" or "she's schizophrenic?"

It's something to consider when we look at the way in which these illnesses are treated not just medically, but socially. 

(All pictures via Wellcome Library London, licensed under Creative Commons)

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