King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

In the Soviet Union

Hilda North Lewis (1900-66) was a distinguished child psychiatrist. She met her future husband, Aubrey Lewis, during her tenure of a research fellowship in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. The fellowship enabled her to develop interests in the social and psychological issues of adopted children, about which she wrote and lectured widely.

During a visit to the Soviet Union which she undertook in August 1931 with Edward Mapother and thirty other doctors and scientists she visited children’s homes and psychiatric hospitals, in addition to a number of scientific, architectural and economic attractions, as demonstrated by the party’s itinerary, shown here.

The Soviet Union was at that time a place of special interest for many European and American visitors. There is no evidence that Lewis and Mapother’s party belonged to that category of visitor whom historians have dubbed ‘fellow travellers’ or ‘political pilgrims’, although a copy of their reading list, shown here, includes items by the well-known pro-Soviet commentators Maurice Dobb and Maurice Hindus. The tour took palace under the auspices of the Society for Cultural Relations between the Peoples of the British Commonwealth and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

This organisation had been formed in 1924 following the establishment of diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Its founding members included several intellectuals, such as John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell, who had been sharply critical of the Soviet Union after visiting it. Hilda Stoessiger (as she then was) and the other travellers in the group appear to have been motivated overwhelmingly by a desire to ascertain the conditions of medicine and science in a different kind of society.

An article by a member of the group in the British medical journal after their return elicited the criticism from a correspondent that their analysis of conditions in both the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia was incomplete. This was not surprising, as no member of the group had specialist knowledge of the Russian language or history before the tour. As Edward Mapother’s report on Soviet psychiatry indicates, he was far from uncritical. He was apparently unable to visit a Soviet psychiatric hospital, although he had heard unfavourable reports of one. He noted the poor provision of facilities for chronic patients, and observed with mixed feelings the Soviet inclination to subject the apparently healthy to psychiatric supervision in workplaces.

Hilda’s reports, though also mixed, were somewhat more enthusiastic. By the time Aubrey Lewis visited the Soviet Union in 1937, as part of his Rockefeller Foundation-funded tour of European psychiatric hospitals, the authorities were even less eager to let outsiders ascertain the true state of Soviet psychiatry.

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