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Hypnosis at Bethlem

In January, our Friends Secretary went to Manchester to take part in the annual British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference, as part of her PhD research. The event included a presentation on the BSHS education programme, during which several videos – the efforts of the Society’s “Strolling Players” – were screened. The most recent of these - “The Tables Turned” – evoked a few thoughts on late nineteenth century Bethlem.

The short film, part of an educational outreach event exploring scientific knowledge within a historical context, showed a nineteenth century séance, at which one character attempts to investigate the possible causes of the popular pastime of table turning. A number of recent historians of psychiatry have stressed the importance of the Victorian interest in spiritualism to the developing science of psychology in the nineteenth century, in particular attempts to define and understand the “unconscious” mind. While, today, research into psychical phenomena tends to be regarded a “pseudoscience”, it is important to recognise the impact that spiritualism had in the nineteenth century.

Certainly, physicians at Bethlem were interested in whether spiritualism might help in understanding and treating patients. Early experiments in hypnosis took place in 1883, in which superintendent George Savage tried unsuccessfully to be hypnotised himself, in order to understand what “honest hypnotism really was.” In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the Hospital received a number of visits from “Mr Smith of the Psychical Society,” otherwise known as the Society for Psychical Research, which had been set up in 1882 to investigate apparently psychical phenomena. Were these external events, connected with a spirit world, or were they being consciously or unconsciously performed by unscrupulous or gullible mediums? How could this account for the experiences of others involved in a séance? And what else could this suggest about the workings of the human mind?

At Bethlem, Mr Smith tried several experiments in hypnotising various patients, either in an attempt at cure or to alleviate particular symptoms from which the patient suffered. Most of these efforts were ultimately judged unsuccessful, nonetheless – as Bethlem superintendents frequently remarked – it was important to try every possible new treatment for insanity, and the “method ... is reported to have met with considerable success abroad.”

To find out more about the British Society for the History of Science, visit: http://www.bshs.org.uk