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Biography and Psychology II: George Savage (1842 - 1921)

Our recent post on biography in the history of psychology has inspired a new series, exploring the lives of certain individuals at Bethlem, beginning with late-nineteenth-century psychiatrist, George Savage.

George Savage Vanity Fair 1912 02 07
Caricature of Savage in Vanity Fair, 1912

Savage is little remembered today: he is most famous in the field of literature, having for a while attended Virginia Woolf. His lack of contribution towards any major theoretical approaches to mental illness, or shifts in diagnostic classification, make him often appear a minor figure in the history of psychiatry. Yet, for his case-based approach, Savage serves as an interesting example of the late Victorian asylum psychiatry and, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he thus held a prominent position in the field. Indeed, Savage appears to have been the only psychiatrist who appeared in Vanity Fair’s prestigious “Men of the Day” series (on his knighthood in 1912) and, on his death in 1921, was declared by The Times an “authority on insanity.”

George Henry Savage was born in Brighton in 1842, into a middle-class family. He went into medicine, qualifying in 1865, with his first post being as House-Surgeon at Guy’s Hospital. However, after taking on a six-month post as “resident student” at the Bethlem Royal Hospital the following year, Savage later claimed that he “saw the possibility which might open as a life’s work.” After a period as a country GP, Savage returned to Bethlem as Assistant Medical Officer in 1872, later becoming Physician-Superintendent, before leaving in 1888 to embark on a successful career as a consultant psychiatrist, while remaining in regular contact with Bethlem, and on the board of governors until his death.

Savage was an active member of the Medico-Psychological Association (meetings of which were often held at Bethlem), served a term as President, and was co-editor of the Journal of Mental Science, the main psychiatric journal, from 1878 until 1894. Yet, this professional engagement should not blind us to the importance of seeing Savage, also, as an individual. He was not only well-known in the field of psychiatry, but also appears to have been popular in a broader swathe of contemporary urban bourgeois society, described by a friend after his death as “the most clubbable man I ever knew.” Savage’s membership of a huge number of dining and literary clubs attests to this. His contemporaries described him as a “big-brained vigorous-bodied man,” who “revelled in climbing crags, sport on the moors ... and skiing over snow and icy roads.” As a follow-up post will indicate, seeing Savage as a person as well as a doctor reminds us that his relationship with his patients was often personal, as well as professional.