Fifteen years ago the following paper [shared in full below] by Dr Allan Beveridge was published in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. The paper explores an account given by Mary Coutts of her experience of the asylum system in 1909. This account was published in a pamphlet: ‘BRITAIN’S Siberia: The High Statistics of Insanity Explained by a Certified Lunatic”.
Allan Beveridge’s published writings on the history of psychiatry demonstrate an approach that is careful, thoughtful, and well-researched. I have learned so much about the history of psychiatry from Allan. However, I somehow missed this particular publication and only recently came across it by chance after coming across the headline “BRITAIN’S SIBERIA” in a newspaper archive. There was a little more than serendipity to this, in that I had recently written a completely unrelated poem and made a short film about visiting an abandoned farm in Fife that was once known as ‘SIBERIA’.
[please click here or on the above image to play my short film SIBERIA]
Allan Beveridge offers a balanced description of Mary Coutts’ account and in addition provides that which was recorded in her medical (asylum) notes. In this post I have been able, thanks principally to on-line archives that have since been made available, to share further information. As well as some limited biographical details of Mary’s life, this includes published correspondence between Mary and a range of individuals involved in the asylum system including fellow patients.
I have a few further thoughts to offer on ‘BRITAIN’S SIBERIA’, noting that like Allan, I am now a retired NHS Psychiatrist.
(1) Whilst I have serious concerns about the overall validity of ‘Pathography’ [retrospective study that focuses on a person’s illnesses, misfortunes, or failures], I can understand why Mary Coutts did end up requiring hospital care.
(2) Whether mentally-ill, not-ill, or somewhere in-between, we need to be careful about making conclusions based on a Pamphlet and Medical Notes alone. As Allan Beveridge makes clear, the culture of Mary Coutts’ world cannot be re-experienced and it would be misguided to believe that ‘absolute truth’ can be established. In the additional archive material below are some reminders that this wider culture was not just the world in which Mary lived, but also the world in which the asylum system operated. Neither Mary nor the system could be detached from this.
(3) I was immediately struck by the sub-title of Mary Coutts pamphlet “The High Statistics of Insanity”. Today this concern has found different forms of expression. Academia generally uses the term “over-medicalisation”, the BMJ uses the term “Too Much Medicine”, and the Scottish Government, “Realistic Psychiatry”. It would seem that, with the passage of time, the concerns of a “certified lunatic” have become the concerns of the “establishment”.
(4) My last thought relates to some of the further archive material [shared below]. The letters between Mary Coutts (a patient) and professionals (those in positions of authority) indicate significant, if understandable, defensiveness. More than a hundred years later I am aware of similar defensiveness today, and the report First Do No Harm by Baroness Cumberlege has considered some of the harmful consequences of this.
Further archive material [presented in chronological order]:
Before September 1887: Mary MacDonald meets George Coutts at their place of work. Mary is a ‘Machinist’ and George is a ‘Clerk’
28 September 1887: Mary Macdonald marries George Coutts:
23 May1905: Mary’s mother dies at Kingseat Asylum:
15 May 1906: Mary’s husband is appointed organist for Skene Parish Church:
From 18 March 1908 – to 14 July 1908: Mary Coutts was detained in Aberdeen Asylum:
9 January 1909: Century Press, London publishes Mary Coutts pamphlet:11 January 1909: A summary of ‘BRITAIN’S SIBERIA’ is published in JUSTICE:
30 January 1909: Dr Solomon Herbert, MD, letter, published in JUSTICE:
30 January 1909: Mary Coutts responds to Dr Herbert [as published in JUSTICE]:
6 February 1909: A letter by a ‘Heartbroken sufferer’:
6 February 1909: A letter from A J Marriott:
13 February 1909: M A Simmons, an Asylum Nurse Attendant:
13 February 1909: Mary M Coutts [letter of response]:
13 February 1909: Dr Solomon Herbert, MD, second letter, published in JUSTICE:
30 October 1909: Editor of JUSTICE:
17 November 1909: In the Aberdeen Press and Journal:
20 November 1909: In the Aberdeen Press and Journal:
8 December 1909: In the Aberdeen Press and Journal:
18 December 1909: The Fermanagh Herald:
2 April 1911 Census: 108 Osborne Place, Aberdeen: George Coutts with son George and daughter Mable [Mary Coutts is not present]
22 September 1928: Death of George Coutts [at time of death living at 124 Osborne Place]:
October 1928: The following month, son George Coutts emigrates to Canada:
January 1931: Mary Coutts advertises Lodgings to let in Bon Accord Street:
14 January 1935: Mary Coutts dies in Kingseat Mental Hospital
I was the very last doctor at Kingseat, working the last night before closing for good the next morning:
Kingseat Hospital, Newmachar, Aberdeenshire: