Insane or in Vain: Woodland’s “Poor Grounds” and the London Asylum for the Insane

This week I write about the London Asylum for the Insane because of its prevalence in my research about the Victorian-era “poor grounds.” In our historical records there is usually a home address; however, for many who are buried in the “poor grounds,” the asylum is listed. Though this information is not of public concern today, it is worthwhile to speculate why it would have been recorded previously and why the asylum would have been noted instead of one’s permanent address. Did these people have homes? Did they have families? If not, why? Here is a little history about the asylum:

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Photograph taken July 28, 2012 by Londononbridge. The former London Asylum would have been located at 850 Highbury Avenue. Still standing is the main examination building and infirmary.

In 1870, London introduced its first Asylum. It was a place for the disorderly, the insane, and the poor. As one of the first institutions to treat mental illness in Ontario, the London Asylum for the Insane was revolutionary. Within days, their 500 beds were full.

Located outside of the city center, the asylum initially focused on compassionate care and moral therapy. Their intent was to treat the patient as a whole being rather than focusing on a single symptom. As the Science Museum’s History of Medicine department in England describes, a “patient had a better chance of recovery if treated like a child rather than an animal.” These treatment plans suggested that rural seclusion and social conformity were the keys to one’s mental health. Patients would be “bettered” as members of society, fitting in with the community by keeping steady jobs and following strict social norms, thus curing their mental illnesses. I imagine that suppressing one’s sense of individuality in favour of conformity would be counterproductive to improving mental health today. However, I theorize that those who were subjected to moral therapy and compassionate care in the nineteenth century would have been happy to conform. Considering their society’s views on health at the time, where compliancy meant sanity and sanity was the ultimate goal, one’s sense of belonging would have been paramount.

Doctors at the asylum also performed several experimental surgeries. In fact Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, who believed failed reproductive organs to be the source of mental illness or “hysteria” in women, executed routine hysterectomies. Moving into the 1930s, shock therapy was introduced to treat symptoms of schizophrenia by inducing seizures. Lobotomies were also completed between 1944 and 1967; though we do not know how many were performed in London, there were about 1 000 between these 23 years across Ontario.

One reason that someone would be sent to the asylum includes sexual deviation. What is shockingly expectant is that masturbation was identified as the root cause of a majority of mental illnesses. Dr. Bucke thought he had remedied this “self-abuse” by inserting a metal wire into the foreskin of a man’s penis so that masturbation was too painful and uncomfortable. Dr. Bucke did not know that masturbation is actually a positive action for sexual health and is not the cause of mental illness, as he would later discover after 11 failed attempts of reversing “self-abuse.”

You will find that The London Asylum for the Insane went through a few name changes which all reflect changing attitudes and discoveries about mental health. The first renaming occurred in 1932 resulting in the “Ontario Hospital for the Mentally Ill, London.” Years later in 1968, the name changed to “London Psychiatric Hospital” and again in 2001 to “Regional Mental Health Care” until finally closing in 2014. These name changes are crucial in removing the stigma from mental illness. When we hear “asylum,” we imagine screaming patients running down halls before being locked in their prison-like cells. Using the term “care” is much more empathetic and agentic. In the early days of the LAI, living with a mental illness was shameful. Some families even mourned a member’s committal as though they had actually died. For this reason, some of the people who did die at the Asylum were destined for the “poor grounds” at the Woodland Cemetery.

For more information and an extended history of the London Asylum for the Insane, check out these links:

https://www.lib.uwo.ca/archives/virtualexhibits/londonasylum/index.html

http://explorationproject.org/london-insane-asylum/

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