Gartnavel Royal Hospital and the History of Scottish Psychiatry Symposium: Reflections


Gartnavel Royal Hospital

On the 15th November 2014, a one-day symposium took place to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Gartnavel Royal Hospital. A number of the Asylum and Post-Asylum Spaces group took part in the event and their personal reflections on the day are below:

Dr Hazel Morrison

A few technical hitches did nothing to diminish the success of this weekend’s bicentenary symposium.  Set within the newly refurbished Calman Cancer Centre, the warmth and serenity of the building stood in testimony       to the continuing development of patient care provision within NHS Scotland.  Crossing disciplinary boundaries, the symposium offered a platform for the symposium’s presenters, panel discussants and audience members, (many of whom had professional, as well as personal ties to the institution) to chart histories of Gartnavel from its 19th century origins as an asylum, to its current status as a 21st century mental health hospital.  Together, the symposium’s speakers revealed a history of political movements and patient activism, philanthropic motivations and architectural ambition, as well as some of the day to day experiences of patients and medical practitioners within clinical encounters.  I have to offer especial thanks to Dr Iain Smith and his colleagues who enacted, with compassion, humour and diligence, one of the most intimate historical records of doctor-patient relations, as once played out within Gartnavel.

Professor Chris Philo

This symposium was a wonderful affair, I thought, partly because of the venue – the homely but well-fitted converted chapel on the Gartnavel site, now the home of the Calman Cancer Support Centre – but principally because of the engaging mix of excellent, thought-provoking presentations (not speaking of my own effort here!) and the sympathetic, considered and creative responses from an unusually ‘mixed’ audience (in that it contained academics of different stripes, students, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, support workers and others with an investment in the life and times of Gartnavel).  The ground covered was varied: some presentations set the scene of Gartnavel’s complex and tangled biography; others ventured into the specifics of psychiatric innovations and patient reactions in the hospital and beyond; others again addressed specific kind of conditions presenting at the hospital as a window on wider trajectories in pathology, therapies and wider social worlds; while others discussed archives, patient resistance or ruminated on what Gartnavel’s past might tell us about future directions in mental health care, psychiatric interventions and the still-contested place of ‘asylum’. Indeed, the latter theme loomed large, notably towards the end of the event when participants debated the extent to which a large in-patient facility such as Gartnavel does have a future as well as a past, and more particularly how it might be reinvented to keep alive what was in many senses the genuinely idealistic vision of its founders (two hundred years previously) without succumbing to the snares of abuse, neglect and small-c ‘conservatism’ (in ideas and practices) which have so often captured ‘lunatic asylums’ grown too large and unwieldy (even, on occasion, Gartnavel included).  For me, the day was a great success, reflecting enormous credit on its primary organisers, Malcolm Nicholson and Iain Smith, but also many others who contributed their skills and labour, as well as their hearts and minds, on the day.

Cris Sarg

The recent symposium celebrating the bicentenary of the of the various incarnations of the Gartnavel Royal Hospital was intellectually stimulating and well attended by academics, clinicians and the general public. The presentations and panel discussions covered various topics, including Gartnavel’s 19th century origins, philanthropic motivations, architectural design evolution, patient activism, patient-practitioner clinical encounters in historic and contemporary contexts and finally looked at the continuing role of the institution as a 21st century mental health hospital. The symposium showcased the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary research surrounding Gartnavel and hopefully stands as a starting point for further research and community engagement.

Dr Cheryl McGeachan

As I entered the Calman Centre on the morning of the symposium (with friend and colleague Dr Anthony Lewis from Glasgow Museums) I felt very proud to be part of such a special event. My research into the life and work of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing had led me to Gartnavel many times and I feel deeply attached to the hospital through the archival records I have read, the patient testimonies I have listened to and the site visits that I have been on. The event took an exciting journey through the geographies and histories of the site itself, the patients that encountered the wards, the many staff who influenced, and were influenced by, the practices going on inside the building, the move to deinstitutionalisation and the rise of the mental health service movement. A key part of the day, for me, was Dr Iain Smith’s personal reflections on his time spent at Gartnavel (particularly the comments about rhubarb!). A truly inspiration figure, Iain demonstrated the humanity involved in the psychiatric profession and the importance of sites such as Gartnavel in triggering critical discussion about future mental health care and its haunting histories.

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