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A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography

Creator: Clifford Whittingham Beers (author)
Date: 1910
Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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This humane innovation in lunatic asylum practice attracted considerable attention in England, and, although his "Retreat" was conducted without ostentation, but in the simple, quiet methods which characterized Quakerism, it aroused intense hostility, and its methods were denounced and vilified, especially by those interested in the management of English asylums in which insane inmates continued to be treated according to the rigorous code of the conservative British authorities. Chains, straps, strait-jackets, threats, force, coercion, held sway in practically all public asylums, while the York Retreat continued its gentle and most successful Non-Restraint ministrations to the insane. No doubt theories and methods in many English asylums were in time somewhat modified by the influence of the York Retreat, but nowhere else were the efficient, advanced, Quaker principles adopted as the prevailing moral tone and force of an English institution prior to 1838, when at the Lincoln Asylum, Dr. Gardiner Hill, seconded by Dr. Charlesworth, endeavored to absolutely abolish mechanical restraint. But their convictions were regarded as too radical by the authorities above them, and, as a consequence, they lost their situations as asylum officers. Yet the time for a revolution in lunatic hospital management was ripe and the requisite man, with masterful endowments, was at hand.


In the following year, 1839, Dr. John Conolly, without previous experience in such work, assumed control of the lunatic asylum at Hanwell, containing over eight hundred patients. For some years previously this asylum had been managed upon lines which were conspicuously mild for those days. In fact, "it was deservedly considered one of the best managed asylums in England," and yet Dr. Conolly found there forty patients subjected to mechanical restraint, and, designed for such uses, about six hundred instruments, of one kind and another, half being leg locks and handcuffs, with forty coercion chairs. All these he collected in one room which was called the museum, and from that time no patient in Hanwell was subjected to mechanical restraint. In 1844 Dr. Conolly wrote as follows: "After five years' experience I have no hesitation in recording my opinion that with a well constituted governing body, animated by philanthropy, directed by intelligence and acting by means of proper officers, there is no asylum in the world in which all mechanical restraint may not be abolished, not only with safety, but with incalculable advantage." Dr. Conolly abolished mechanical restraint, not simply because it was an inheritance from the prison regime to which the insane were formerly subjected, but more especially because it was the material embodiment of all prison policy -- coercion. As an English authority has stated it, "what he sought was not only to abolish the tangible instruments of restraint, but to substitute the power of a superior mind, guided by unvarying kindness. He showed by reasoning, he proved by trial, and he enforced by all the high courage of his unvarying patience and his tender heart, the great principle that the insane are best governed by a law of kindness and that all coercion applied to them is not only unnecessary, but hurtful. The credit of first suggesting Non-Restraint does not belong to Conolly, but it has been well said the credit of originality is often due, not so much to the man who first suggests a thing as to him who suggests it in such a manner as to display its value; or, not so much to him who sets an example worthy of imitation as to him whose example compels imitation by its worth. What Conolly did was not merely to abolish restraint and torture within the sphere of his personal control, but to render their continuance impossible within the limits of civilization. Under the influence of his example the fetters fell from the limbs of the lunatic in all English asylums. By example and precept, by tongue and pen, he labored without ceasing, in defence of the great principles involved, and he had the satisfaction of ultimately seeing the practice founded upon them, more or less closely copied in every asylum in England, and in many others located in various parts of Europe. He found the lunatic an object of dread and suspicious horror; be left him an object of commiseration and kindness. He found insanity regarded as a disease of the mind, he left it recognized as a disease of the body. He found a madhouse a prison, and a place of torture without mercy; he left it a hospital for many and an asylum in fact, as well as in name, for all inmates."


This great work, immeasurable in its continued and ultimate effects, was accomplished only as the result of the most painstaking personal application to detail in his own wards and a long continued battle for mercy and justice. Opposition to his theory and practice, some of it honest doubting, but much of it ignorant and bitter prejudice, sprang up and attacked him from all quarters. He met it first from his own country, from English asylum officials, and later from Continental critics. He met all opponents in the true Quaker spirit and his intelligence, his courage, and his sincerity triumphed, as such qualities always will, over error and ignorant prejudices. When his detractors could no longer maintain the commonly believed error that for mechanical restraint some substitute treatment no better, perhaps more reprehensible, was adopted, the assertion that Dr. Conolly's patients were of a different, a milder type than those to be found in other asylums, was advanced. First, in Great Britain it was claimed that the Hanwell patients were a specially effeminate lot. Then when Non-Restraint became the general working policy of English asylums, Continental faultfinders asserted that English people were a more docile race than native Frenchmen or Germans. The same untenable assumption is often heard to this day in extenuation for the continual use of mechanical restraint in certain hospitals. It will be seriously stated that the original character of hospital populations varies from the mild to the aggressive in different sections of a given country, or state, and possibly in contiguous districts, even. At Danvers mechanical restraint was abolished about four years earlier in the women's than in the men's wards, not because women patients are less difficult to manage, but for the reasons that an arbitrary position on this question was not assumed by the superintendent at first, and because the assistant physicians and supervisors in the women's department were especially responsive to suggestions in this direction. Eventually, when Non-Restraint had permeated the whole hospital, and when the chief assistant who had been gradually convinced of the feasibility of Non-Restraint against his preconceived but honest convictions, remarked in answer to some statement of fact, which was made one day, "Oh, it's a comparatively easy matter to avoid mechanical restraint now because we don't have the cases that require it as we formerly did." Then and there, the superintendent took occasion to point out that he had discovered exactly what every man brought into intimate association with Non-Restraint had discovered; namely, that Non-Restraint once established in an institution, conditions which formerly suggested its use rarely if ever occur; that, as institution after institution had been placed on the Non-Restraint basis, there had been a continuous, successive re-discovery of the same altered internal conditions, from the days of Conolly to the present time, a period of some fifty years. Such being the fact it must be admitted that this less fractious, less turbulent condition of the insane in the wards of the hospitals was always the outcome of Non-Restraint and never the forerunner.

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