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Letter to America 1

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Photo of Dr Weir Mitchell courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

In the course of research recently carried out at the Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (kindly supported by the College’s Francis Clark Wood Institute for the History of Medicine and the International Affairs Working Group of the Archives and Records Association UK and Ireland), our Archivist stumbled upon a letter written to Dr Silas Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia (pictured below) by Dr John Batty Tuke of Edinburgh.

To historians of medicine, Mitchell’s name will forever be associated with the ‘rest cure’ he devised for and practised on cases of so-called ‘hysteria’ in women and (some) men in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His was a managed regime of seclusion, bed rest, diet, massage and faradization. Tuke was a name to be conjured with in the world of Victorian asylumdom, Drs Samuel and Daniel Hack Tuke having been associated with the pioneering efforts of the Retreat near York. The exact familial relationship of John Batty Tuke to these remains unknown, but he was an eminent personage in his own right, sometime Superintendent of Fife and Kinross Asylum, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and Member of Parliament.

Tuke’s letter to Mitchell is dated July 19, 1894, and commences:

Whilst reading your paper in Brain – the address to the American Medico-Psychological Association – I wondered whether you had ever seen two papers by me on the same subject.

Mitchell’s address, given on 16 May 1894, was published in volume 21 of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (not, as Tuke wrote, in Brain). Its purpose was, inter alia, to bemoan the isolation of psychiatry from general medicine, the custodial treatment to which asylum patients were routinely subjected, and the paucity of psychiatric research in both state and private institutions.

To be continued.