A mad Swiss in England

Roy PORTER

Wellcome Institute for History of Medecine, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BN, England
Tel. 0171-6118557, Fax. 0171-6118634
<R.Porter@Wellcome.ac.uk>

 

Early lunatic asylums have attracted horror stories like wasps round a jampot. Foucault famously wrote about the "great confinement" ; the private institutions characteristic of England have been cast as part of a "trade in lunacy" ; and the autobiographies of the insane reverberate with complaints about their evils. There is much truth in all this. But, as is being shown by current research into madness and the family, there were also, no doubt, circumstances in which well-meaning and humane people believed there was no alternative but to have recourse to the madhouse. This paper addresses such a case.

Its hero is Dr Jean-François Berger (1779-1833), a Genevan physician and naturalist who came to England in 1807, partly to escape Napoleonic Switzerland. He was given a pension by leaders of the London geological community to undertake fieldwork in the English and Irish countryside. His mental health then apparently broke down, and he became distrustful and started suffering from delusions. When his London friends stepped in to help, his suspicions multiplied. A position was found for him in India, and a berth booked on a ship - at which point Berger became enraged, deluding himself into thinking that his friends intended to deliver him to the USA, then at war with the United Kingdom. Finally he issued a challenge to a duel. This sorry sequence of events led to his being confined by his patrons in a high-class private asylum. This paper will explore the kinds of choices available to Berger's London sponsors which led to a tragic outcome which none of them wanted.

 

Panel 5A   (Shock)
Wednesday 15 September 1999
14.10

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999