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How Some of Our Ancestors were Treated in the Early 20th Century

A short résumé by Edwin Martin

This article is about a book I have read that reveals some obscure psychiatric treatment that was practised in the USA and Britain during the 1920’s through to the 1940’s.

The book uncovers a long-suppressed medical scandal, shocking in its brutality and sobering in its implications. A leading American psychiatrist of the 1920’s came to believe that mental illnesses were the product of chronic infection that poisoned the brain. Henry Cotton extracted teeth, tonsils were excised, and stomachs, spleens, colons, and uteruses were all removed in the name of “FOCAL SEPSIS”. Many patients died from this surgery and thousands more were left mangled and maimed.

In June 1924 Thomas Graves and others to propound the theory of focal sepsis invited Cotton to London. Graves was the superintendent of the Rubery Hill Mental Asylum, Birmingham from 1919 up to his retirement in 1949, shortly after an Act of Parliament established the National Health Service in 1948.

Graves was trained as a surgeon but went into the psychiatric profession after the Great War of 1914-1918. He was an outright proponent of Cotton and during Grave’s long tenure at Rubery Hill Asylum; many patients underwent this appalling surgical practise with the same outcomes as the patients in Trenton State Hospital, New Jersey.

Cotton was investigated during August 1925 by a legislative committee into the waste of money at the Trenton State Hospital. The enquiry also took evidence of complaints from patients and relatives whose loved ones did not survive Cottons surgery. However, Cotton became mentally ill and his closest medics stepped in to respond to the hearing. Cotton recovered and went on to continue his profession thanks to the support of his peers.

For a more in depth understanding of this historical medical approach to mental health, and the professional shenanigans of those Bedlam Doctors,
you may wish to read the book by Andrew Scull, called
Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine,
published by Yale University Press 2005.
ISBN 0300107293 Price £18.95