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His Powers of Walking I

Regular readers will know that this year we have been blogging about patients of the past who have had their moment In the Spotlight of ‘fame’; and that from time to time we have drawn attention to others, such as Walter Abraham Haigh, whose names are unknown to posterity but whose stories are exceptional. Our recent blog thread of First Person Narratives provides evidence that this is an ongoing phenomenon. One of our aims in highlighting stories like these is to pay homage to the individual quiddity of all Bethlem’s patients, even though not every story can be told.

The Canadian author and researcher Aislinn Hunter has just drawn our attention to another such story, that of Robert Cowtan, a librarian at the British Museum admitted to Bethlem at the age of 60 in 1877 in a manic state brought on, as recorded in the admission register, by overwork. In Hospital Cowtan proved a prodigious letter-writer, addressing himself to the Lunacy Commissioners (who had the duty of inspecting asylums and hearing patient appeals), fellow patients (one of whom appeared to have become the object of his unrequited affection) and outside friends alike.

Like a great number of patients admitted between 1870 and 1929 who showed signs of improvement, Cowtan was temporarily transferred to Bethlem’s convalescent unit in Witley near Godalming, Surrey. The daily regime of this unit was mild and its environs pleasant, affording opportunities for escorted rural walks, for example, but the chief attraction of transfer to Witley was the associated prospect of departure from Bethlem after a month in the country.

Unusually, however, Cowtan stayed only eleven days at Witley, and rather than being discharged recovered upon his return to the Bethlem’s main site in Southwark, he was transferred to the ward in the Hospital reserved for those with the most challenging behaviour. All that appears in his medical record between the note of his transfer to Witley and his return is the cryptic line ‘Has great belief of his powers of walking’. In the event, Cowtan left the hospital in what the hospital considered to be a fit mental state a full eleven months after his abortive stay at Witley.

What, if anything, took place while Cowtan was at Witley? We are delighted to say that Aislinn Hunter has agreed to take up the story from here.

To be continued.