Madhouse genetics

by Theodore M Porter

DNA structure. Bases are in the centre, surrounded by phosphate–sugar chains in a double helix. IMAGE/Wikipedia

What the archives of mental-health asylums reveal about the history of human heredity and the evolution of genetics

People speak of genes and DNA nowadays as if they were as tangible as English peas and Ferris wheels, and as if the personal traits that matter to us correspond to impalpable entities identified by modern genetics and genomics. The human concern with heredity is, of course, much older. Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton began preaching human improvement through planned breeding in 1865, and his name is still practically synonymous with the eugenics movement, which took off a few decades later. Galton was often described as a creative genius (as opposed to an evil one, in our modern reckoning) who singlehandedly developed a new science of hereditary intervention. Stronger claims still continue to be made for the genetic contributions of Gregor Mendel, whose hybridisation experiments on peas were neglected for decades until suddenly in 1900 he began to be celebrated as the founder of a new science of genetics.

Lone geniuses make for appealing – but generally misleading – tales of science. The study of human heredity was not a lonely enterprise in Galton’s day. For most of the 19th century, it was focused on the battle against insanity. Even before that, madness had occasioned suffering on a very large scale, and was no less absorbing to writers and medical men on that account: William Shakespeare has a madman in many of his works, whether comic or tragic, and the tradition still endures in diverse art forms. I wondered how historians of genetics could have ignored for so long the presumed link between insanity and heredity. For me, the topic opened up around 2005, when I went looking for the sources of data used by researchers on heredity either side of 1900 for my book Genetics in the Madhouse (2018). It came as no surprise that mental hospitals and schools for the ‘feebleminded’ had abundant records. I had not expected, however, that doctors and psychologists in the 19th century were so deeply engaged in hereditary investigation – analysing it for the sake of more precise measures of hereditary transmission – still less that systematic recording of hereditary information on asylum patients went back to the 1820s, and more sporadic ones at least to 1789.

This new science of human heredity was saturated in statistical tables, compiled to display the order of these mental institutions and as gestures of institutional accountability. On the surface, they appear dull and routine. The text accompanying these tables in the reports makes clear that alienists (as asylum doctors were then called) took the numbers quite seriously. But to learn how they worked from inside, and to comprehend what was at stake, I had to get closer to scenes of everyday action. The files of these institutions were and remain living archives, which soon caught me up in the dynamic they created. State mental hospitals, scarce before 1815, had by 1860 become providers of a service that was obligatory for self-consciously modern states. Their expansion far outpaced the growth of populations, a stunning institutional success that betokened catastrophic medical failure. Intolerable expenses seemed to purchase far-from-sufficient cures, and it was often impossible even to maintain a decent display of cleanliness and quiet. By the 1950s, the scale of asylumdom was comparable to that of contemporary prisons in the United States: only after the overhyped promise of pharmaceutical remedies provided a rationale to send patients away could a shuttering of state mental hospitals commence. Would the files, too, succumb to mould and gnawing rats?

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