Mirror Writing

Chapter 6 of ‘Repeats its love’ my book on Mavisbank House

As a child this writer could fall asleep whilst still standing (his grandmother’s chuckling reminiscence) and with innocent aplomb, entirely without understanding, mirror write. Alas both traits disappeared beyond the first six years that Alfred Adler so poetically described as the style of life. This is a telling reminder to the author of how we change, shape, and reveal our true selves. It is far more complex than that erroneous divide of nurture versus nature. Much returns to family, and communication patterns and the retreat we all take into imagination with thoughts arising but rarely spoken. It is doctors like Langdon-Brown, shaped by an understanding borne of treating every malady of man, who choose to peer beyond that dark-mirror, who instinctively embrace the glow of the humanities as expressed in art, poetry, story and song. That glow has been lost to much of modern medicine.[1] An image from the memory of Langdon-Brown has struck a chord with this writer. That moment was experienced by a young Langdon-Brown as he witnessed the recovery of a bronze statue dredged up off the coast of Greece: “It was an exquisitely beautiful figure of a boy . . . his right arm was uplifted, and he gazed with wonder and delight at something which had now vanished.”[2]


Figure 1: The Superintendents of Mavisbank Asylum: Dr Hugh W. Diamond’s patients (first photographs of madness)

Between its opening in May 1876 and closure in 1954, Mavisbank the Hospital, was served by at least nine different Superintendents. It seems that all the medical and administrative records have been lost, though who knows, perhaps one day some might turn up in family attic or, more likely, legal basement. Research for this manuscript has thrown up just one file covering Mavisbank Nursing Home Ltd between 1946 till 1953.[3] The following account is derived from sources such as the Lancet, the British Psychological Association, the British Medical Journal, census returns, books, broadsides, and newspapers.

The very first Superintendent to govern Mavisbank was Dr James Allan Philip. His appointment was a coup, as he was brought from the newly refurbished Lincoln Asylum. The Lincoln Asylum had been built in 1820 as a ’public receptacle for objects suffering under the greatest of all human calamities.’ It is now a conference centre called The Lawn.[4]

The first reference, amongst sparing few, to Allan Philip, is a letter he wrote to the Lancet, in response to an article on the treatment of Dipsomania. The letter was dated 24th August 1878, and Allan Philip signs off as Superintendent of Mavisbank Asylum.[5] Elementary family investigation has revealed that Allan Philip was born in Aberdeen in November 1845, the eldest child of eight born to an Englishman who had settled in Mounthooly, Aberdeen as General Practitioner. Curiously this was the Aberdeen city district served by the writer’s wife also GP between 1993 and 2001.

In 1880, in Turriff, Allan Phillip married the daughter of an Aberdeenshire minister: Katherine Cruickshank, and in June 1882, at Mavisbank, she was delivered of a daughter. Shortly after the young family move on from the auld Mansion House and institution and disappear from record.

The second Superintendent of Mavisbank was Dr John Keay, and he served the asylum for two years between 1891 and 1893. Keay was a prominent member of his profession, and, having graduated in Glasgow in 1881, crowned his career by becoming, in 1918, President of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association. Like so many of our past great figures he was brokered first in Crichton Royal, Dumfries and gained his appointment in Mavisbank directly following. [6]

In March 1893, from Mavisbank, Dr Keay reported his experimentation with a new medicine, an anti-histamine called Chlorobrom that had first been introduced to Scotland by Dr Charteris. “I have not seen, however, any note of the solution having been used in the treatment of mental and nervous diseases, and as I have prescribed it in suitable cases in this asylum for about a year with results which seem to show that in it we have a valuable addition to our still too short list of really safe and reliable hypnotic.”[7]


After this brief Mavisbank sojourn, Dr Keay moved on to be Superintendent of Bangour Village District Asylum, where he served out till retirement. When the First World War broke out he was entrusted with the task of converting Bangour into a 300 bed MilitaryHospital. His military bearing survives record: he was apparently unflappable, precise and unnerving in his administration and his pride in his hospital reflected in his belief that to ease suffering his staff must feel belonging and heartfelt support from their Superintendent. One nurse recorded Dr Keay’s only weakness: “an unconscious look in his eye, which signified his feeling that brass-hats would be so much more manageable if they were certified.” Dr Keay was awarded CBE and died in Dorset in January 1943 aged 83 years.[8]

The next Superintendent of Mavisbank was Dr George Robert Wilson, who served the Institution for the decade that spanned the century’s turn (from 1894 till 1906.) Sadly his life was cut short, aged just 42 years, by insidious breathlessness with mycoplasma concluding victory. This bacterium felled a giant, a man once vigorous in youth, when he had played rugby football for Scotland. His talent for sport had no limit: he was a scratch golfer, and as such is listed victorious, year after year in the British Medical Association Tournaments. He was also a fine curler and cricketer.[9]

A rather vivid impression has been left of Dr Wilson, surviving in his own words. In 1899 he wrote his most notable work: Clinical studies in Vice and insanity.[10] This book is a rarity: for it carries personhood first and science second. Indeed it carries man, and the scientific misunderstandings of addiction, in a most timely reminder for today, when science alone has failed to combat Scotland’s exponential cirrhotic decline and the unenviable, yet undeniable statistic, as first place on Europe’s list of untimely deaths due to alchol.[11] It would not be time wasted for the 15 cases of alcoholism described by Dr Wilson to be aired and left upon the collected consciousness of us today. Dr Wilson certainly disproves the dictum of this generation’s scientific tutors, who tell us that a single case (n=1), or indeed a handful of cases as here, carry no importance, as only statistics with massive demoninators, have any meaningful scientific relevance.

“Not everything that counts can be counted,
and not everything that can be counted counts.”

                            (Sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton)

Figure 49: A photograph from the time of Dr Bill McConnochie Harrowes: he saw beauty

Dr Wilson was a man of wide interest. His great-great-grandfather was none other than Robert Adam, half the ‘polish’d mind’ of Mavisbank and wholy of Britain beyond. There can be no doubt that it was this family association that tuned Dr Wilson’s ears to the beautiful but faint little mavis song. Having been born in Kilmaurs House in Duns, the son of a family of renowned weavers, Wilson appears to have shared in family suffering as his father was pensioned after serving for the Royal Artillery and his grandfather James Smith never the same after his life in the 20th Dragoon Guards. Wilson’s mother, riddled with tuberculosis, died after two years suffering in 1873, and poor Wilson was not even seven. What happens thereafter is not entirely clear, but in all likelihood he was raised by his mother’s brother, George Smith in Edinburgh. George was a religious man, well travelled, who was in his day considered a man of letters, a writer and publisher. One can assume he was popular as his writing brought him wealth. In 1891, we find Wilson living with his uncle in a mansion house in Newington, along with three other lodgers.[12] All were doctors serving as supporting Physicians to Dr Clouston at Morningside’s Royal Edinburgh, apart for one, a pathologist to the Asylum.

In 1893 the fifty-seventh annual meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association met in Edinburgh and one of the speakers was Dr Wilson, in advance of the book he had written, and was just about to publish, entitled simply: Drunkenness. How curious, in reading Wilson’s summation of 1893, in that his dark mirror reflects the views of today’s more acerbic medical commentator, Theodore Dalrymple, the monthly columnist in the British Medical Journal.

“The Habitual drunkard was the subject of a paper by G.R. Wilson of Mavisbank Private asylum, in which he dissented from the too kindly theory of hereditary, ridiculed craves, and generally urged a more ‘Calvinistic’ treatment of the habitual drunkard. The paper gave rise to much and varied discussion.”[13]

Dr Wilson was described by Thomas Clouston as “one of the most attractive of men” and regarded highly amongst his scientist brethren for his broad philosophical grasp. His literary style was all his own, and his case descriptions were as vivid as they were dogmatically astute. Thomas Clouston expressed a wariness of Wilson’s ‘storytelling’ and colourfulness, but nevertheless concluded: ‘There exists in the literature of psychiatry no better clinical records.’[14]

Below are two case studies, given in Wilson’s own words but severely edited for this narrative: they are interesting on several accounts. Firstly for the vividness of life and the inescapable, complex, interaction of ‘drunkard,’ family and environment. Secondly, they reveal the house of healing that was Mavisbank, and the understanding, largely since lost, that natural environs, beautiful surroundings and a feeling of belonging can restore purpose when it has been lost to drink.

Case Study One: Andrew First
Andrew First was one of the gentlest and most guileless of men I have ever known. He was the kind of man one would suppose some of the disciples to have been, for he was a determined man in matters of conscience, and of a mild, persuasive eloquence. It was Andrew’s misfortune that he had not realised the danger of alcohol

His habit had got past the stage of concealment before his wife died, and more than once or twice she endured the pain of seeing her husband drunk beside her death-bed. When his wife died Andrew was drunk, for the next few days he was drunk, and he was drunk at her funeral. Then he came to us.

But to him drunkenness was a sin, and nothing more and nothing less than a sin; and a due repentance was the only possible cure for it. It had been ordained by his relatives that Mavisbank was to be his wilderness, and his humility forbade him to rebel. He would eat of our locusts and clothe himself spiritually in camels’ hair, and in time he would be strong to fight his devil.

Everything that was suggested he fell in with in a spirit of submission, except a very few things, like cards and dancing, which were against his conscience. He took the regulation walks within and without the grounds, he accepted the constant supervision of an attendant, he went to bed at ten and rose at half-past seven, he went to the drawing-room on the nights prescribed. He curled, and golfed, and played bowls, – all with the same cheerfulness and docility and repentings.

One thing preyed constantly upon his mind and told against his recovery. He had been too drunk after his wife’s funeral to see that the grave was properly attended to or to remember whether it was or not. The idea of his neglect took on the nature of a delusion in his mind.

And so, before many weeks had gone, he had drunk himself into the grave which he had been so eager to visit.

Case Study Two: Alcoholist, Husband, Gentleman
Mr Erythema came to us under an assumed name, he quarrelled with us seriously within a fortnight, but he stayed on because he had paid to be treated, and he liked value for his money; and after four months he was discharged recovered with good results. These things were characteristic of the man. Secretive and a little sly, exacting and irritable, not afraid to speak his mind, very business-like and methodical, he had plenty backbone left, though drink had worn off the layers which make life pleasant.

He had taken seriously to golf, and if any one thing can be said to have saved that man, golf must get the credit. He practised assiduously, first here and then on other greens, and he also did a great deal in exploiting all the places of interest in the county and beyond it.

He roamed all over the countryside, taking prodigiously long walks; he planned all sorts of improvements in our household arrangements; he devised a new golf club and laid out our course on a new pattern; he tried to convert me on politics, went to the theatre, doctored the horse, called frequently upon friends whose acquaintance he had made since coming to us, and was altogether very busy and very cheerful.


Figure 50: The writer’s father Stuart, with the writer’s son Andrew: like Dr Harrowes, Andrew saw beauty.

Dr Wilson died at Allantown House, Newmains, Lanarkshire in March 1908, he was 41 years old and had only a few years before purchased the Mansion House to form his Sanatorium for the treatment of Neurasthenia and other mental disorders. He left behind a beautiful widow and two little daughters.

His early death was a great loss to medicine and a blow to the scientific treatment of alcoholism. It really would seem that comparatively few men in medicine have appeared since with such widely reaching outlook framed always through earnest scientific scrutiny. Yet his successor at Mavisbank, Sir John Batty Tuke, concluded Wilson’s Eulogy that the see-saw between science and story was weighted by Wilson on one side: “Dr Wilson was in no respect narrow, except, perhaps, in regard to one point, that he undervalued the labours of the microscopic brain pathologist. His vision seemed to fail him as to the future capabilities of that, the most accurate and indisputable of all the investigations.”[15] Given the advancement of cellular understanding of this century’s turn, and day-on-day advancements in such, it is no wonder the microscope, and pathologist, were considered to hold the foundation answers to all mental illness, alcoholism or otherwise. However the pathological certainty of alcohol brain damage apart, Wilson was surely correct to return to man and womankind, considered not in isolation from, family, environment and life. Batty-Tuke, however recognised that alcoholism was a problem to be addressed not just by the medical profession, but by mankind in general:

Future advances

Figure 51: Mavisbank as it was in its final days of healing

[1] Tallis, Raymond (2008) Enlightenment; Manifesto ClubAnyone who defends the Enlightenment must first of all acknowledge that the original Enlightenment philosophers had widely differing views; and secondly that our ‘take’ on Enlightenment thought has evolved – in particular we are more wary of the trap of scientism.”

[2] Langdon-Brown, Sir W (1938) Thus we are Men; The collected essays; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co Ltd

[3] National Archives of Scotland (1946-1953) National Health Service (S) Act, 1947 Mavisbank Nursing Home Ltd, Loanhead; position in the NHS Non-Scheme Hospitals HH101/549

[4] Rutherford, Sarah (2008) The Victorian Asylum; Shire Library

[5] The Lancet (Aug 1878) Dipsomania; James Allan Philip, Superintendent of Mavisbank Asylum

[6] British Medical Journal (Jan 1943) Obituary of Dr John Keay

[7] Keay, John (March 1893) Chlorobrom in Mental Diseases; British Medico-Psychological Association

[8] British Medical Journal (Jan 1943) Obituary of Dr John Keay

[9] British Medical Journal (Mar 1908) Obituary of Dr George Robert Wilson

[10] Wilson, George R. (1899) Clinical Studies in Vice and Insanity; William F. Clay.

[11] BBC News (22 Feb 2009) Scotland has the eighth-highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, according to statistics analysed for the Scottish Government.

[12] General Register Office for Scotland; Census returns from 1841 till 1901

[13] Wilson, George Robert (1888) Discussion of ‘The Habitual Drunkard’ at Medico-Psychological Association’s Annual Meeting in Edinburgh

[14] British Medical Journal (Mar 1908) Obituary of Dr George Robert Wilson

[15] The Journal of Mental Science (1909) Obituary of Dr George Robert Wilson

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