"Melancholy Passing
Into Mania"
(Image: Medical Times and Gazette)

Galt’s familiarity with insanity came from many different sources, many of them cultural-from Greek drama and Shakespeare to images of asylum patients printed in popular journals. The following extracts from his writings and images from his personal library reveal the sources for some of the images of the mad that were going through his head.

Galt’s reading allowed him to see that the line between an insane mind and a great one could be very fine indeed, and the presence of madness in his reading reminded him that the mad could have a great deal to contribute to society.


Shakespeare, amongst the many indications of his intimate acquaintance with human nature, represents Hamlet, though insane, as giving vent to some of the most profound and noble reflections. A number of great minds, too, like Cowper, Robert Hall and Dr. Johnson, experienced such frequent attacks of insanity or hypochondriasis, as to render it exceedingly difficult, nay impossible to draw any line of demarcation in their lives between the period of insanity and the reverse-so that we are driven to the conclusion that some of their most admired literary performances were elaborated during the actual presence of mental disease. ... But we need not depend alone on the biographies of the "kings of thought," to demonstrate the capabilities of the insane. (55; 44)

The ways that insanity was dealt with in cultural texts also proved instructive for Galt, providing him with starting points for thinking about his own forms of treatment.

In that divine drama, the Ajax of Sophocles, after representing the Grecian hero as bowed down by a "tempestuous fury" the poet subsequently declares that such are subdued not by confinement nor by stripes or restraint, but by "the kindly advice and discourse of friends." And not alone to the past, or to the wild dreams of poesy is this idea applicable. For in practice there is nought found to be so efficacious as an augmentation in the number of those in attendance on the insane; and the more particularly, if persons can be so placed, with whom the afflicted lunatic may obtain the consolation of congenial and friendly discourse... [30] when inclined to be irritable or violent, to tear and break things, instead of having his hands confined, or being locked up day after day in his room, the poor sufferer is entrusted to the diligent, constant attendance of a kind officer. He is soothed with pleasant converse and persuasion; his mind is turned from its morbid desires, by being presented with occupation and amusement, or he is enabled to wear off his excitement by exercise in the free air of heaven. (55; 29)

One effect of Galt’s use of past representations to make sense of the present is to create a sense of continuity, showing how responses to the insane have endured over time. This is seen in the following quotation from Macbeth, in which Galt preempts William Faulkner, who used the same lines as the source for the title of his novel The Sound and the Fury over half a century later.

The appearance if excitement also sometimes exists with but little of reality; and we must not be misled by the harmless bluster of the insane, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Essays; 38)

The following images are from a copy of The Medical Times and Gazette which Galt owned, from a feature titled "The Physiognomy of Insanity." Notable are the degree of faith in the catgegories of insanity used and the belief that the faces of the patients conform to a particular "type.


"Melancholy Passing Into Mania"
(Image: Medical Times and Gazette)

"Melancholy"
(Image: Medical Times and Gazette)

"Religious Melancholy "
(Image: Medical Times and Gazette)

"Chronic Mania "
(Image: Medical Times and Gazette)

After describing a treatment for insanity, in which the patient sits in a warm bath and has cold water poured on their head, Galt makes an interesting reference.

A similar plan of action would, we think, be calculated, in the first place, to succeed in calming any nervous symptoms exhibited by the inebriate. But secondly, it would very favourably supplant and act as a substitute for the intense craving for ardent spirits, by which many sufferers must be tortured. Thus under analogous circumstances, De Quincey exclaims, "At this time * * a thought occurred to me very seriously, that it would be best to live constantly, and, perhaps, to sleep in a bath." (59; 28)

It is perhaps surprising, given that he is reported to have died from an overdose of laudanum, that Galt was familiar with the writings of De Quincey. His most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, provides a vivid portrait of the pleasures and eventual horrors associated with addiction to opium (a drug Galt was keen to prescribe to his patients): “Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving from the lower depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes:—this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened up before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.” (39)

Galt’s use of opium in the hospital may thus be seen as an unwise move on many levels; yet, at the same time, several critics have pointed to his use of opium as a precursor to modern psychiatric drug therapy. Whether its use did more harm than good for his patients is unclear; it depends on how perturbed they were by the images which the opium eventually displaced. Unfortunately,these images are ones we have no way of accessing.

See the Complete Report for 1857.
See the Bibliography.