Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students. In our eleventh post, Hannah Blythe shares with us her research on the history of community-based mental health charities in Britain.
What are you currently researching?
My thesis focuses on community-based mental health charity in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I define a ‘community-based’ charity as an organisation that was concerned with people who were living in private homes rather than institutional buildings known as lunatic asylums. Between 1879 and 1939 four such organisations were founded in Britain. When investigating these charities, I think specifically about two themes. Firstly, I explore how the psychiatrists, voluntary and paid non-professional workers, and patients thought about and experienced recovery from mental disorder. I investigate what it meant to get better and what life after recovery looked like. Secondly, I examine the role of these charities in the early history of psychotherapy.
More broadly, I am interested in encouraging conversation and collaboration between scholars who use the humanities to study the psy-disciplines, and practitioners, such as psychotherapists and psychiatrists.
What led you to research this topic?
I took a fairly long and winding route to the PhD. I went to university as an undergraduate to study history because it was an academic subject that I had always enjoyed – I liked history lessons at school, as well as leisure activities like going to museums and reading novels set in the past. I also had a growing interest in mental health, which I realised I could combine with my degree, choosing to write my dissertation about York Asylum. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do when I left university. However, I did know that I was interested in conducting research and mental health, so I found work in policy and public affairs.
A couple of years later, I ‘I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to return to university and decided to experiment with an interdisciplinary Master’s. I studied for an MA in Health Humanities at UCL, using the year to explore both illness and ‘madness’ using history, philosophy and anthropology. I used the course to think about whether I wanted to pursue a doctorate, but returned to my former career after finishing my studies and worked in policy in the charity sector. A while later, I took the plunge and finally submitted some PhD applications that drew on both my Master’s research and my reflections on my workplace experiences.
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archives?
Right at the beginning of my PhD, I had the joy of hitting upon a wonderful piece of evidence in an unexpected place. I was thinking about philanthropists’ engagement in psychological debates. One of these philanthropists was Lucy Cavendish, after whom the Cambridge college is named, so I went to look at materials in the college archive. I was rooting around on the shelves when the archivist brought me an uncatalogued item on the off chance that it would be useful. The item was Lucy Cavendish’s personal visitors’ book, signed by everyone who called at her home. I flicked through the book, not expecting to find much. Suddenly, I was looking at a newspaper cutting of the famous popular psychologist, Emile Coué. Beside the cutting, was Coué’s signature, with a note stating that he had visited Cavendish to perform ‘autosuggestion’. Not only was Cavendish promoting a psychiatric charity, but she was engaging in psychological practices herself.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
In one of the archives I use, there is a letter written by a man who was living in an asylum in Surrey in 1915. This man wrote to a charity to tell the office workers that he had recovered from his mental illness and to ask for their help in securing his release from the hospital. He provided a whole autobiography, telling of his life story including his experiences of illness, recovery and treatment in two asylums. This letter provides a truly fascinating insight into the varied life of a man who was at times a psychiatric patient.
Using this letter as a historical source poses all sorts of ethical questions. At first, I didn’t question making it a central part of my thesis. However, I found the experience of examining the letter felt like I was being invasive. Is it okay to dissect this man’s innermost secrets in my pursuit of a PhD? If not, how do we make sure that patients’ voices are truly heard in our histories? How do I deal with the temptation to retrospectively diagnose the author?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
I can’t say that any one piece of advice has been ‘the best’, but I’ve always liked the reminder that no research is wasted research. It makes me feel so much better when I hit an inevitable dead-end, or when a proposal isn’t successful. I also find that it helps when I need to cut something out of a draft – so much easier when I remind myself that the cut part can go into another piece of work at a later date!
And the worst?
‘Use this term to become an expert in modern British history.’ Far too vague and full of assumptions about what ‘the important bits’ are! After a few weeks spent on undirected reading that didn’t stick, I realised that, while I must read and listen widely, I need to do everything with purpose and specific goals in mind.
Finally – what’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
Cambridge is great for outdoor swimming. The lido on Jesus Green is beautiful, and the Cam by Grantchester Meadows is a good for a wild swim in the summer.