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In the Spotlight: Dennis Lillie

In introducing this series of posts, we wrote that since mental distress is no respecter of persons, one would expect a small percentage of our historic hospital admissions to have been of those in the public eye. Into this statistical commonplace, many have wanted to read a causal link: Isn’t there something about mental ill-health that gives rise to talent or celebrity, or perhaps vice versa? This type of speculation is expressed most persistently in terms of ‘madness’ and (often artistic) ‘creativity’. Without ever coalescing into a testable hypothesis, it finds anecdotal support within both popular culture and academic discourse.

There is a fresh version of this argument in extracts from Tom Griffiths’ Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (Harvard UP, 2007) recently published in an Australian newspaper:

“At least three of the crew of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance were "mentally deranged" by their harrowing escape from the ice. Did Antarctica make these men "go mad" or did it attract people with a certain extremism in their personalities, not just looking for the edge but already near it? Whatever your state of mind, Antarctica can be destabilising, it can be life-changing.”1

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Used with permission

One of these polar explorers was Dennis Gascoigne Lillie (1884-1963). Cambridge-educated Lillie (not to be confused with the similarly-named Australian cricketer of the 1970s) served with distinction as a marine biologist on Robert Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913. His observational studies on birds and whales, and his caricature sketches of fellow members of the expedition, were subsequently published and much sought after. Along with other expedition survivors, he was awarded the Polar Medal. He served as a military bacteriologist during the First World War, whilst objecting to combat duties on grounds of conscience.

Lillie’s mental health failed in 1918, and he was admitted depressed, delusional and suicidal to Bethlem Hospital in February of that year. The content of his medical notes suggests that the state of mind that brought him to hospital was entirely unrelated to his experiences of 1910-1913. Indeed, they report that “on the whole he felt better during this time”. In consideration of financial suppport given by the Captain Scott Memorial Fund, Bethlem waived its usual twelve-month limit on residence. Lillie was discharged recovered in January 1921, and commenced lecturing at Cambridge, but relapsed and was admitted to Buckinghamshire Mental Hospital in October of that year, before returning to Bethlem a month afterward. This time his equilibrium did not return, and in April 1924 he was transferred to Salisbury’s Old Manor Hospital. According to Tom Griffiths, Lillie “did not recover his sanity”1; but, pace Griffiths, he did not lose it in the Antarctic.