West Riding Lunatic Asylum & Brain Science


A review of The West Riding Lunatic Asylum and the Making of the Modern Brain Sciences in the Nineteenth Century, by Michael Anthony Finn.

“We are all phrenologists today,” observed James Crichton-Browne (1840-1938) in 1924 in his monograph The Story of the Brain. “We have come to accept all the cardinal principles upon which the phrenologists insisted” (p. 199). It was an extraordinary remark made by an extraordinary man – one whose long life spanned an equally extraordinary century of discovery in the mind and brain sciences. In that century, intellectual, institutional and social changes had swept through Victorian medical psychology, asylum medicine, psychiatry, and neurology. Those changes had, as Crichton-Browne astutely observed, seemingly fixed a phrenological argument into the cultural tissue of the brain by the close of the nineteenth century. Such had not always been the case. In 1826, while studying medicine at Edinburgh University, Charles Darwin had witnessed first-hand the drab Professor of Anatomy, Alexander Monro (1773-1859), and the Regius Chair of Civil History, William Hamilton (1788-1856), heap scorn on phrenology’s heterodoxies. (Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging: Volume 1 of a Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 59-61.) But a half-century later as Darwin prepared his Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, it was he who would nurture an intimate correspondence with Crichton-Browne, then Director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum and a man who, like his father W.A.F. Browne (1805-1885), transformed but never abandoned his phrenological suppositions.

Crichton-Browne’s tenure as Director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield spanned the period from 1866 to 1876. Growing up in the household of a phrenological father cum medical practitioner who was well-versed in the vanguard modes of Paris Medicine (Chapter 1), Crichton-Browne had trained in medicine at Edinburgh under such luminaries from medical history as Joseph Lister (1827-1912) and Thomas Laycock (1812-1876), and then spent a wanderjahr in Paris from 1862 to 1863. He very much matched the profile of a rising member of the elite medical establishment (Chapter 2). Like many of those often-to-become elite young medical men who came to Wakefield during his tenure as Director, Crichton-Browne ardently advocated research and publication, and thereby slowly he built a “research school” in the unlikely environment of a Yorkshire asylum (Chapters 3-4). From Wakefield for a brief moment in mid-century, numerous figures central to the history of neurology and psychiatry began their young careers; from there the famous West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports appeared from 1871 to 1876; and thus from there many historians have subsequently traced the slow division of neurology from psychiatry in Britain (Chapter 5).

It is this story that Michael Finn tells in his marvelous, empirically  rich and highly sophisticated dissertation, The West Riding Lunatic Asylum and the Making of the Modern Brain Sciences in the Nineteenth Century. The subtlety with which Finn moves in his story between medical legislation governing pauper lunatics and trends in scientific research, the spaces of the asylum and the laboratory, and the patient and the doctor is complemented still further by his almost encyclopedic grasp of the historiography of medicine and science. Through his careful archival analysis of institutional sources, his nuanced reading and interpretation of patient records, exhaustive prosopographic research, and diligent reading of the medical literature, Finn reveals the “historical splendor” of the daily world that Crichton-Browne and others inhabited at Wakefield. He makes clear those doctors’ and Clinical Clerks’ daily struggles and frustrations there, their dogged determination to catalog and organize their records, their almost heroic aspirations to engage in novel lines of research and inquiry, and their often controversial emphasis that mental diseases originated from physical bases. Finn furthermore shows the important role Wakefield played in the story of the rise of the doctrine of cerebral localization. He explains moreover that phrenology, localization studies, and later histological research conducted at the asylum aimed always towards the ends of improved patient care and ultimately the dream of those patients’ deinstitutionalization – an event it seems that happened but rarely. It was thus almost an afterthought that much of the research there should have formed a basis for clinical and scientific neurology – a fact that numerous historians have apprehended without much consideration of the context in which that knowledge was made. But in his most important contribution, Michael Finn demonstrates fully that while Crichton-Browne was not always comfortable with the conclusions and inferences about human nature that were drawn from all of that research, he was nevertheless central in the making of a school that ultimately made modern the brain sciences.

Hitherto the West Riding Lunatic Asylum has always figured as a parenthetical afterthought in the works of other scholars. Thus numerous authors writing on the history of Victorian medicine and science have made passing reference to Wakefield. Historians of neurology, psychiatry, psychology and physiology have briefly mentioned the institution’s legacy in their own intellectual and social histories. James Crichton-Browne, too, has long-occupied mere cameo appearances in any number of short or longer studies of shattered nerves, hysteric patients, tales of asylum horrors, and histories of British eugenics and degeneration. But for all of those studies, no one has ever actually investigated Wakefield properly. No one has set out to give a full-length analysis of Crichton-Browne’s contributions to asylum medicine, medical psychology, and the emergence of neurology. Wakefield and Crichton-Browne have existed, as it were, as ethereal specters haunting a historiography about other things – e.g. the biographies of David Ferrier (1843-1928) or John Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911), the origins of the journals Mind and Brain, the emergence of London neurology, the tension between British psychiatrists and neurologists, the English response to vivisection, or the relations between gender and medicine. Finn in short had ample opportunity to do that which no scholar had really done before, namely explain any number of enigmatic questions about Wakefield’s place in the history of Victorian medicine. This he does elegantly, even as he generously passes on what were too many easy opportunities to mention in asides how wrong the rest of us sometimes were about the West Riding Lunatic Asylum.

The West Riding Lunatic Asylum and the Making of the Modern Brain Sciences in the Nineteenth Century is a masterful, important contribution to the history of medicine. It is an engaging, beautifully written, and highly original dissertation.  No one who works on the history of modern psychiatry or neurology should miss it.

Stephen T. Casper
Assistant Professor
Humanities and Social Sciences
Clarkson University

Primary Sources

West Yorkshire Archive Service (Wakefield)
Special Collections, Leeds University Library
Special Collections, Liverpool University Library
West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports

Dissertation Information

University of Leeds. 2012. 225 + xi pp. Primary Advisors: Gregory Radick and Adrian Wilson.


Image: The Pathological Library of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in the late-nineteenth century. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield, C85/1388-1438. BSHS Travel Guide.

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