My interest in the patients came from looking at a wonderful spreadsheet of all the admissions to the hospital between 1861 when it opened and 1900, over 5000 of them. Starting in 1894 photos were taken of patients on admission and the records include around 700 portraits. Looking at these people and reading the spare notes on them in the spreadsheet is truly moving. They are people just like us. They were working people, their lives were hard, some were desperate.
Paul Tobia did this research at the Bristol Archive, he studied all the medical notes and tabulated the information. Some of the portraits he found are now displayed in the museum.
Many of the patients were in states of extreme ill health when they were admitted, up to half of them died within the year. There are a number messages from medical superintendents (Doctor in charge of the hospital) to Bristol City Council complaining that patients are being sent to them in such poor states of health that they are beyond help.
At this time there were limited diagnoses available to doctors; Mania, Dementia or Melancholia were the principal ones, with just a smattering of imbecility and occasional others. Paul Tobia noticed that the different medical superintendents favoured different diagnoses. The first one, Dr Stephens, did not believe in dementia and most patients were labeled as suffering from mania, whereas Dr Thompson, who took over in 1871, was more liable to diagnose dementia than mania.
We may think that Victorian women did not work but many of the women patients have occupations given, domestic servant is the most common occupation, but there are some more exotic jobs recorded; governess, sextoness, weaver, shoe binder, ex-bawdyhouse keeper. These are not wealthy people, the notes confirm their hard lives, they are recorded as suffering from ‘ill treatment by husband’, starvation, ill health, business worries, overwork, grief. A surprisingly large number are stated to have epilepsy, also noted are those with ‘General Paralysis of the Insane’ which today we know as Syphilis, at that time it wasn’t known that this was a sexually transmitted disease or that there was no cure for it. It is seen more frequently in men, they people died in the hospital and usually quite soon.
Analysing the data in the spread sheet has become my project. I have made various graphs from it and have been thinking as to how to express these data in a more physical and more interesting way. Excel graphs have their points but they are inclined to be dull and a bit uniform. I want to express some of the emotion attached to this data – these peoples lives.