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Inspired: chemical cure, chemical cosh

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ has recently closed. Our exhibition tracing the rise and fall of the asylum contained an array of inspirational objects: JJ Beegan’s toilet roll sketches from the Adamson Collection; a Hogarth engraving; original scrolls of mental health related acts of law; and a number of references to the unique family care system in Geel, Belgium.

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Thorazine advert as shown in ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’.

However, I was drawn to this 1950s advert of a patient both before (montone photo of cuffed man on the left) and after medication (colour image, peacefully at home on the right). I’m intrigued by the claims and somewhat disturbed by the imagery; I want to find out more.

Chemicals have been used in the relief of mental illness since the early post-medieval period. The 1950s, though, was the breakthrough decade for psychiatric drugs, in particular chlorpromazine which was followed by a whole suite of pharmaceutical treatments, such as lithium, thioridazine and paraldehyde. Many of these drugs had been developed for other medical uses, but were found to have a powerful sedative effect. Subsequently, use in asylums and mental hospitals became widespread.

Prolonged use became common and many patients were required to have daily medication. This was usually in syrup form, but also by injection (especially when an immediate sedation effect, or ‘cosh’, was required). Systematically treating people with behaviour-altering drugs also affected their personalities to the point of malleable compliance. While patients were no longer physically shackled or cuffed, they were restrained nonetheless, albeit chemically.

Advertisements for anti-psychotic drugs also failed to mention side effects. Patients under a chemical cosh could develop a sluggish drag when they walked, or near-constant dribbling from the mouth. Others suffered from locked joints or blurred vision. Hypersensitivity to sunlight was another by-product of continual and repetitive use, so much so that some users found it rather problematic to go outside.

It would be wrong to suggest that the use of such medication is wholly negative. Doctors and patients report successful relief from some of the pain associated with mental illness. Drugs can help prevent physical harm to sufferers and carers, and sleep is now a distinct reality for many who had previously struggled with it. Perhaps the most powerful argument is that many people can be free from institutionalisation; medication makes living at home a possibility.

So, should these drugs be consigned to history along with other so-called modern innovations, such as insulin comas, ice baths, electroshock treatment and lobotomies? Or should they be hailed as a liberator? Chemical cure or just chemical cosh?

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant.

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Inspired: Alchemists and housewives around a long table

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Elissavet Ntoulia.

Working in a museum that explores the human condition, you develop the skill of spotting connections between elements that at first glance seem to randomly coexist. Sometimes inspiration comes from as trivial a thing as the choice of furniture: a long table in our Reading Room, for example, situated at the centre of a section exploring the themes of Alchemy and Food. Other sections explore only a single theme, like Body or Pain. So why have Alchemy and Food been paired together?

Possible answers are connected to human curiosity for experimentation and the quest to understand the body’s relationship with nature and the wider universe. Continue reading

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Inspired: The antiquity of speech

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

The first caption as you enter the gallery for ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ exhibition states “voice is the original instrument”. Further, that original human voice, or song, has its origins in the need for humans to socially attach as changes took place within human evolution. Hominins essentially developed a new method of bonding to replace the increasingly inefficient and time-consuming physical grooming; vocal grooming if you like. Speech as we know it is exclusively human. It is behaviourally advanced and unprecedented, involving extraordinary use of our lips, tongue, larynx and as well as our brain. Continue reading

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Inspired: Human evolution & obstetrics

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

As an archaeologist I am particularly interested in the notion of becoming and being human. The study of human evolution fascinates me, as well as how hominid development has had a profound effect on our modern biological makeup. Take obstetrical adaptation for example. The display of a whole array of forceps in our Medicine Man gallery reminds us how giving birth has become so medicalised. I would like to offer one view on this topic. Continue reading

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Inspired: Harlow’s Monkeys

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

I’m inspired by the reincarnated Reading Room that opened just over a year ago. I love the different niches and various lounge areas, notably the space where we have a publication rack containing all manner of magazines, journals and periodicals. I am drawn to one in particular: issue 55 of Cabinet, a “quarterly of art and culture”. On the cover of this “Love” edition is a striking image of a baby rhesus macaque cuddling an artificial mother.

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who conducted research in the 1950s into the nature of the relationship between infant and parent, with a particular focus on the effects of isolation and maternal deprivation. Noticing that the laboratory hand-reared baby monkeys became stressed when their cage blankets were removed for washing, he could see they were attached to their blanket. To Harlow, this appeared to show an inconsistency with the benchmark theory at that time: Sigmund Freud’s “nourishment-association” notion of attachment. Continue reading