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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

John Conolly

John Conolly (1794-1866) had a largely unsuccessful career as what would now be known as a general practitioner before he was appointed to the superintendency of Hanwell Asylum, Middlesex, in 1839. Here, for the next thirteen years, he managed the asylum without the use of any degrading mechanical restraint. This was not his original idea; he had copied it from Robert Gardiner Hill, the superintendent of Lincoln Asylum. Although under this regime the most obvious and degrading forms of mechanical restraint were abolished, other less drastic measures, such as clothes which restricted the patients’ ability to be violent, were quietly adopted.

John Conolly. An inquiry concerning the indications of insanity, with suggestions for the better protection and care of the insane. London: printed for John Taylor, 1830 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Con]John Conolly. An inquiry concerning the indications of insanity, with suggestions for the better protection and care of the insane. London: printed for John Taylor, 1830 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Con]Conolly wrote this book before he had had any practical experience of being an asylum physician. It is discursive, rambling and anecdotal, displaying the characteristics which blighted his brief career as professor of medicine at University College London. This particular copy, however, is of particular interest, as it is Conolly’s own, which he annotated at various times from 1840 onwards. It is possible that it was later owned by Henry Maudsley, his son-in-law, who then may have given it to the Maudsley Hospital.

The annotations can be seen as his modifications of his own views in the light of his later experience. Thus, he has scored through his recommendation that ‘If possible, no lunatic should at any time be with another lunatic’. His opinion that the governor of a lunatic asylum should not be a physician is also ruefully crossed out with the comment: ‘A great mistake. J. C. 1844.’ It is significant that this was the year in which the local magistrates deprived him of his non-medical duties at Hanwell. To him, physicians had to be entrusted with the overall administration of asylums, as the sphere for purely medical intervention was mostly restricted to controlling infectious disease among the patients.

At the end of his list of detailed proposals for the external regulation and internal management of asylums he writes that, ‘Most of these suggestions have been gradually adopted. J. C. 1856’, which is his reason for stating in the inscription opposite the half-title page that the last chapter, among others, is no longer needed for a future edition. However, Conolly must have been conscious that, despite his efforts at Hanwell, his wish that asylums be transformed into teaching hospitals-cum-clinical research centres had not been realised. His son-in-law would see that it would be.

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