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Galton’s Asylum Photos: Typecast at UCL

Bethlem Archives and Museum recently took part in a discussion stemming from photographs taken by Francis Galton at Bethlem in the 1880s, an event related to the Typecast exhibition at UCL's Petrie Museum. Some of the Bethlem photographs are displayed in the exhibition, which explores the relationship between Flinders Petrie and Francis Galton (stemming from a collaboration over the archaeological examination of 'racial types'), and eugenics and its legacy.

Galton took a large number of photographs of Bethlem patients, planning to produce composite images. These composites were a popular method used by late nineteenth century researchers into heredity, hoping to produce a record of the "typical" features of people with particular characteristics. In the event, Galton was unable to create composites from the Bethlem pictures. However, the strength of late nineteenth-century belief in the heredity of mental illness was such that this did not appear to make him reassess the idea of a link between heredity and mental health. The topic of "insanity and marriage" was much debated by psychiatrists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and certainly considered by superintendents at Bethlem, who clearly felt they had a moral obligation to provide their patients with advice, even when they were unable to definitively determine the role of heredity in the onset of illness. George Savage, superintendent at the time the Galton photographs were taken, used statistics gathered at Bethlem suggesting that roughly a third of patients could be shown to have relatives who had suffered from mental health problems to emphasise that mental illness might be inherited, but also that inheritance might play a minor part in the overall etiology of disease. Nonetheless, heredity was a real concern for many people in the later nineteenth century, influenced by the huge impact of evolutionary theory, and we have already referred on this blog to the way in which such worries might contribute to the decisions of ordinary people in relation to marriage.

Yet the Galton photos also raise many issues about the ethics of using material gathered in a period when ideas of consent were very different from those we might hold today. While examination of the patient casebooks at Bethlem certainly suggests that patients could, and did, refuse to be photographed or examined (the very technique of photography required a subject to remain still, after all, particularly for Galton's photographs, specifically staged for composite construction by ensuring that subjects faced the same way and were at the same distance from the camera), it is entirely possible that others felt obliged to do as they were told, or did not understand what they were being asked. Certainly, it seems unlikely that asylum patients were made fully aware of the purpose of the photographs, although it is equally possible that they might not have cared if they had, perhaps sharing with the researchers a faith held by many in the power of science.

While the idea of 'informed consent' was not necessarily a concept held by nineteenth-century doctors, there are certain areas in which such issues appear to have been considered. When Bethlem began to admit voluntary boarders in 1886, such admissions were allowed if the patient signed a declaration (which informed them, among other things, that they might give notice to leave at any time) and "appeared to understand" the contents. Of course, the decision as to whether or not an individual appeared to understand might be a highly subjective one. Meanwhile, the 1890 'Lunacy Act' was particularly concerned with the rights of asylum patients, instituting, among other things, the right of every certified patient to be seen by a judicial authority if they desired, and notice of this had to be given to each person. What's more, although the names of individuals in asylums appeared in full in the 1881 census (a process which caused some patient complaints to be recorded in asylum casebooks), from 1891 patients were anonymised.

Two conflicting approaches to the Galton photographs were explored in the discussion, concerning how we deal with such images today. Should we provide more detail, including personal information from patient records? Such accounts can help to show the variety of individual asylum patient lives, a detail effectively removed by the standardisation of the images. Might the human element of such stories encourage identification, as in Jane Hubert's personal account of her own experiences with young men who had spent their lives in institutions? Or are such images so ethically problematic that they defy interpretation? Do we risk perpetuating the messages put forward by the photographers themselves? Sarah Hutton, from the National Archives, questioned the press use of archives in this vein, such as the display of Edwardian photographs of "habitual drunkards" to support modern concerns with "antisocial behaviour", ignoring alternative interpretations that might see them as, perhaps, representations of illness or social control.

Certainly, such stories are a reminder that many of the ethical concerns attached to the photographs of nineteenth-century researchers in eugenics remain implicit in much contemporary political, social and scientific debate. These issues are ably addressed by one of the last events in the Typecast series, the screening of Estate face, a film by artist Patricia Shrigley. The still below from this darkly humorous look at prevalent stereotypes of white working class women was inspired by a recent comment made at the Conservative Party Conference about "stopping the working class breeding like pigeons".

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(c) Patricia Shrigley