Thesis title: ‘This distressing malady’: Madness and childbirth in nineteenth century Scotland
Supervisor: Professor Rab Houston
My research examines nineteenth century discourses of insanity attributed to childbirth in Scotland, considering the stories shared and understood during the period, by women, families and medical men, and the wider understandings circulated in the public sphere. The focus is on discourse rather than the pathology of postnatal mental illness, and my thesis will aim to determine the influence of social and economic factors on the prevalence and acceptance of a postnatal insanity diagnosis.
During the nineteenth century, the term ‘puerperal insanity’ emerged as a diagnosis of madness caused by childbirth, along with insanity of pregnancy and lactational insanity. In its milder forms, women lost interest in their families and failed to look after their homes. In the worst instances, women might injure or even murder their infants. In many cases, the women disgusted their physicians with their use of obscenities and displays of overt sexual behavior. At a time when motherhood was seen as a woman’s foremost duty and pivotal role, such behavior seemed to challenge the feminine and maternal ideal and indeed strike at the heart of family life and society.
The condition was further situated in a medical discourse which sought to confirm women’s position in the private sphere by relating mental and physical health with the development of the female reproductive system, through claims that activities such as work, other than domestic work, and education, could detract from the proper development of the reproductive organs and pose a threat not only to a woman’s own health but also to the health of her offspring.
My aim is to examine the discourses of insanity associated with reproduction in a Scottish context, and to consider the forces at work in the admission of women to the charitable asylums and in their subsequent diagnosis and treatment, with particular reference to the influence of class, status and social background.
Scholarships and Awards
Strathmartine Trust Scottish History Scholarship
Awarded September 2015 by the Strathmartine Trust and the Institute of Scottish Historical Research
Papers and Presentations
Campbell, M. A. (2016). ‘‘Noisy, restless and incoherent’: puerperal insanity at Dundee Lunatic Asylum.’ History of psychiatry. doi: 10.1177/0957154×16671262
A tale of two asylums: Caring for the insane in nineteenth century Dundee and Angus. Paper for the Institute of Scottish Historical Research seminar series, postgraduate progress panel, 9 February 2017.
Care, Cure and the Cookie Shine – Voices from Dundee Lunatic Asylum 1820 – 1860. Paper presented at Voices of Madness, a conference hosted by the Centre for Health Studies, University of Huddersfield, 15 – 16 September 2016.
The ‘unexpected appearance of insanity’ – untold stories from Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum. Paper presented at the Historical Perspectives Conference, University of Edinburgh, 1 – 2 June 2016.
‘An unexpected appearance of insanity’ – madness and childbirth in nineteenth century Dundee. Paper presented at the ISHR Reading weekend, The Burn, Edzell, 8 – 10 April 2016.
‘A delirium without fever’: the birth of puerperal insanity. Paper presented at Difficult Women 1680 – 1830, a conference hosted by the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York, 27 – 28 November 2015.