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19. Treating mental illness in the early 20th century

By Chris Wilson (cw498@cam.ac.uk)

The Father Christmas figure pictured here is Theophilus Waldmeier, a Swiss Quaker missionary based in the Levant from the 1860s until his death in 1915. Late in his life, Waldmeier began raising funds for the construction of a mental hospital at Asfuriyeh, near Beirut, which opened its doors in August 1900. Envisaged as introducing modern and humane forms of treatment for the mentally ill, Waldmeier’s own annual reports on the hospital reveal some of the tensions engendered by his approach. Waldmeier saw work as regenerative, but not everyone agreed. In 1907, he wrote: ‘when the relatives of the patients come and see them at work they do not like it, often saying, “Why does my son or daughter work? This is not right – look at their hands and feet, how hard and dirty they are”, etc., etc., but soap makes all right again.’ Well they might have complained; in the same year, the medical superintendent reported that a large raised terrace had been built on the grounds of the hospital ‘almost exclusively by patients’ labour’. Even a source as official as the annual report of a hospital, read carefully, can offer up valuable glimpses of abuse and resistance. Patient work remained important at the mental hospital at Asfuriyeh long after Waldmeier’s death, but took on very different forms to the back-breaking labour performed by patients in the opening years of the twentieth century; in 1950, to end on a more festive note,  patients were responsible for printing sketches of the hospital, which were then sold as Christmas cards.

 

Image: Theophilus Waldmeier, from Henry T. Hodgkin, Friends beyond seas (London, 1916), p.64. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophil_Waldmeier#/media/File:TheophilWaldmeier2.jpg.

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