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Loose Threads 2

“They said I was mad: and I said they were mad; damn them, they outvoted me.”

These words are attributed to the eighteenth-century actor and sometime Bethlem patient Nathaniel Lee, and are widely considered to concern the injustice, as he saw it, of his admission to the Hospital. Back in 2009, when putting together an online learning resource on the history of the Hospital, we found that this was a favourite quotation of scholars of the history of medicine, but also that none of them could trace a source for it that was further back than 1963.

And so we wrote at the time: “This aphorism was taken up by the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 70s in support of a larger point about the social construction of madness…The absence of adequate support for the attribution raises the interesting issue about the convergence of fact and fiction in historical narratives of mental health treatment, and the messages such narratives are designed to convey”.

In the course of the research that underpinned last year’s Bedlam exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, the author (and erstwhile Bethlem Museum trustee) Mike Jay came across a much earlier source for this saying, in the following form:

“I asserted that the world was mad”, exclaimed poor Lee, “and the world said, that I was mad, and confound them, they outvoted me”.

(The source is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographica Literaria, 1817, chapter 12 – not exactly contemporaneous with Lee, but much closer ).

In this form, the quotation is not so much a protest against the hospital authorities or the medical establishment as much as it is an existential cry, along the lines of ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’. Mike Jay wrote This Way Madness Lies, the book written to accompany the Wellcome exhibition (recently reviewed by Danae Karydaki for the Times Literary Supplement), precisely to make this wider point: “while in the twenty-first century the asylum is dead, ‘the world has [now] become a great Bedlam’”.

The questions we raised back in 2009 still stand: how did this cri de coeur come to be transformed into an anti-psychiatric slogan, and why did no-one before Mike Jay worry that its source could not be traced before deploying it in this way?