County asylums were largely designed and built along the principles of the newly developed humane, or ‘moral’, treatment. This centred around the institutionalisation of ‘lunatics’ at asylums built in the countryside, with large grounds for the benefit of patients.
The petitions and medical certificates shown here demonstrate how patients were committed to asylums in Britain during this period. The first document is a petition from the local sheriff in the county of Kincardine, a member of the judiciary of Scotland, and gives the patient’s personal details. Then there are two medical certificates from local medical practitioners—both ‘physicians and surgeons’—who provided details of the reasons for commitment and their professional judgement on the capacity of the individual. The third page is another legal document concerned with moving the patient to the asylum in Montrose in the county of Forfar.
The patient in question was Charles Altamont (misspelled Altimont throughout the form) Doyle, an illustrator (or draughtsman) and father of the Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle. He was committed to Sunnyside Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum in Scotland in 1885. This followed a period where he had lived at Blairerno House—a home for ‘dispomanics’, or alcoholics. After his initial commitment he remained in asylums for the rest of his life, suffering epileptic fits and memory loss. He later moved to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum then the Crichton Royal Asylum in Dumfries as a private patient. Whilst committed he continued to produce illustrations, including the illustrations for his son’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1888).
Think about the various legal and medical documents required to commit someone in the late nineteenth century. How do they compare to the modern day? Think about the amount of evidence required for commitment, the legal and medical documents supplied and so on. Also note the way in which the handwriting on the printed form—which prescribed the inclusion of certain kinds of information at particular lengths—shows how it was used by the medical practitioners. Are there any ethical issues with the way in which Doyle was committed, or not?
The forms were bound into the admissions book at a later date, which is why some of the text has disappeared down the gutter margin of the page (where the pages are bound into the spine). There are hundreds of such forms bound in the book, which shows that the form was standard in some way. What might this show about asylum admission in the nineteenth century?
Sunnyside Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum was originally founded as the Montrose Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary in 1781 by Mrs Susan Carnegie of Charleton. It was the first mental hospital built in Scotland and was granted a royal charter in 1810. The need for improved facilities saw the asylum move to a new building at Sunnyside farm in 1858, with further buildings opened in 1899, 1901, 1904, and 1905 to accommodate increasing numbers of patients as well as the extra staff required to care for the additional patients. In the twentieth century the hospital was subject to various administrative changes, including incorporation into the newly created National Health Service in 1948. It was renamed as Sunnyside Royal Hospital in 1962 and closed in 2011. The University of Dundee Archive holds Sunnyside records dating from the late eighteenth century to the 1990s.
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