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‘Migration, Mental Illness and the Management of Asylum Populations’

April 13, 2011

Event report – by Sarah York

This one-day workshop in September 2010 was hosted by the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick, co-organised by Hilary Marland (Warwick), Catherine Cox (University College Dublin) and me, and was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust. The workshop was designed to bring early-career and established scholars together to focus on the relationship between migration, mental illness and the management of asylum populations. A range of papers, concentrating on the 19th- and 20th-century asylum, contributed to debates on admission and discharge processes, the complexities of asylum management, and the management of particular patient groups within the asylum.

Following opening remarks by the organisers, the first speaker of the morning session was Rebecca Wynter (University of Birmingham). Her paper considered micro-migration and spatial integrity in the early 19th-century asylum, exploring the boundaries and borders associated with asylum therapeutics and structures and economics. I followed with a focus on the management of suicidal lunatics and the prevention of self-destruction, demonstrating how the desirability of prevention permeated all aspects of institutional life, influencing the conduct of treatment methods and approaches to patient management.

In the second session, Louise Hide (Birkbeck, University of London) discussed the lived experiences of male patients within two LCC asylums: Claybury and Bexley. She explored the ways in which men adapted to methods of management and treatment, within an environment that was by definition contrived and artificial, and apparently running counter to notions of masculinity. Jonathan Andrews’s (Newcastle University) paper examined the management, meaning and conduct of post-mortem examinations at the Victorian asylum, concentrating primarily on the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, Morningside.

He considered the development of the dead house from a marginal sector of asylum activity to a linchpin of laboratory medicine. The third session began with Carole Reeves’s (Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL) paper on Jewish immigrants to Colney Hatch Asylum. This paper compared the Jewish immigration experience with that of the indigenous East Enders. Reeves illustrated that the ways in which asylum patients were perceived along lines of ethnicity influenced their management and prospects for discharge. Pamela Michael’s (University of Bangor) paper considered migration and insanity in north Wales. This paper explored the possibilities offered by asylum records, including admission data and case histories, for investigating patterns of migration by asylum patients between communities and institutions.

The workshop’s final session featured a presentation by Catherine Cox, Hilary Marland and me. This paper presented our initial findings from the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Madness, Migration and the Irish in Lancashire, c.1850–1921’, exploring the migratory patterns of Irish patients through the Lancashire asylum system. It addressed the impact of Irish admissions on the four Lancashire asylums and the Poor Law system, demonstrating the extreme pressures placed on asylum managers and Poor Law authorities and exploring some of the solutions put forward. The workshop concluded with Nicole Baur and Joseph Melling’s (University of Exeter) paper on mental health patients and readmission to mental hospitals in southern England. Focusing on the mid-20th century, their presentation offered some preliminary thoughts on the role of the geographic and social origins of patients, their period of hospitalisation and the pattern of their return to hospital as readmissions.

This was the first of two events to be organised in association with our Lancashire project; a second event will be held in Dublin in 2011. The workshop was intended to restart what was formerly a very active and productive history of psychiatry workshop series. The workshop concluded with several offers to host future events within this broad framework.

Sarah York is based at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick and University College Dublin.

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