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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

Henry Maudsley

Henry Maudsley (1835-1918), perhaps the best known of all the Victorian alienists, was also one of the most atypical. After a few years at Manchester Lunatic Asylum, where he seems to have acquired a distaste both for asylums and for lunatics, he spent the rest of his life writing, treating private patients and assuming leadership roles in the world of late nineteenth century alienism, as one of the editors of the Journal of mental science and as President of the Medico-Psychological Association.

Signature of Sir Frederick Mott on title page of Henry Maudsley's The physiology of mind. London: Macmillan and Co., 1876 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Mau]Signature of Sir Frederick Mott on title page of Henry Maudsley's The physiology of mind. London: Macmillan and Co., 1876 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Mau]Maudsley’s place in scientific thought derives not from original laboratory experiments (he did not undertake any) but from applying the physiological and neurological theories of others. In his disobliging obituary of his father-in-law, John Conolly, in 1866 he accused him of sentimental benevolence, particularly in his assumption that a significant number of psychiatric patients, if treated well, would recover. To Maudsley this was an unrealistic attitude. Not only had asylums become overcrowded warehouses of the insane, but asylum physicians were in most cases only too willing to undertake the role of containing their inmates.

This accounts for his stipulation in 1907, when he donated £30,000 of his fortune to found the Maudsley Hospital, that it should be a teaching hospital and research centre, with a large outpatients’ department. In other words, it should not be for patients with no hope of recovery. Today the institution he founded is the world-renowned Institute of Psychiatry, since 1997 part of King’s.

Like his continental counterparts Augustine Morel and Richard Krafft-Ebbing, Maudsley went on to claim that unfortunate character traits, such as alcoholism or criminality, were inherited by succeeding generations, who would degenerate into insanity. This idea applied Lamarck’s concept of acquired characteristics which became inherited to the concept of insanity. Although Maudsley was a sworn enemy of asylums, his theory provided a handy excuse for the failure of asylum physicians to ‘cure’ many of their patients. It also supplied a justification for theories of eugenics.

In a letter to Sir Frederick Mott, inserted into this book, Maudsley states that it is unlikely that many more copies of his books will be sold. In another letter to Mott, inserted in another book of Maudsley’s in the Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection, he refers to his request to his publisher to destroy all unsold copies of his books. This request was carried out, and original editions of his works are rare today.

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