A Victorian rest cure

I can’t help but be interested in past medical treatments that in retrospect are obviously ineffective and harmful–because we no doubt still have many such treatments. (Indeed, I’ll end this short blog by describing one.)

Alys Russell, the wife of Bertrand Russell, went for a rest cure in April 1902 to the establishment in Brighton run by a Dr Boyle. She was depressed, probably severely so, and had been for many months. One reason she was depressed was that her marriage, which had begun with strong mutual passion, was failing. Indeed, Russell described in his autobiography how he realised suddenly that he no longer loved Alys:

“I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening.”

Russell doesn’t say when this was, but the best guess is February 1902, the month that Alys was supposed to be going for the rest cure. RusselI didn’t tell Alys of his experience right away, and they continued to live together until 1911 and were not divorced until 1923. We can’t help but think that Alys must have detected something in Russell, and I deduce from Russell’s account that this brilliant man was low on what we now call “emotional intelligence.”

Alys was supposed to be in Brighton for four weeks but stayed much longer. She had to stay in bed almost all day and even after six weeks was allowed to be up for only six hours a day. She wasn’t allowed to see family or friends on the grounds that they might disturb her. Her activities were restricted to reading and a small amount of writing. Russell could send her a letter of only one sheet a day.

Dr Boyle presumably believed in his cure, although perhaps it was purely a business. But it’s hard to imagine a regimen that could be worse for a severely depressed woman whose depression had its roots in a failing marriage.

But the errors continue. Last night we watched the second in a brilliant but chilling trilogy of documentaries on the activities of Paolo Macchiarini, “the world’s greatest surgeon.” In essence he replaced the trachea of a series of patients, including a woman with benign disease, with a plastic pipe without ever testing his operation in animals. The patients died horribly. I strongly recommend these documentaries, which are best described with the word Shakespearean. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b080k2z4

At least Alys wasn’t killed by her rest cure.

NPG Ax160690; The Wedding of Bertrand Russell and Alys Pearsall Smith by Unknown photographer

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