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Stories from psychiatry’s past: Sign here please

March 18, 2013
A detail from the frontispiece of G.  Mackenzie Bacon's 'On the Writing of the Insane'

A detail from the frontispiece of G.
Mackenzie Bacon’s ‘On the Writing of the Insane’

There’s a lot to do when you live in London, and sometimes you end up somewhere slightly odd. I can’t say I was overly enthusiastic when, in October, my husband suggested we go to the ‘London Writing Equipment Show’, but reasoned that it at least sounded like the kind of place where I might pick up some interesting Christmas presents.

In the basement of a Bloomsbury Holiday Inn, we discovered that what ‘writing equipment’ really boiled down to was pens. Hundreds upon hundreds of pens. Professional dealers and collectors watched over their wares and jovially dispensed their knowledge to amateurs like myself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale and enthusiasm of it all. As one of apparently few people who still takes notes in longhand, I found the absence of laptops and iPads refreshing: people still wrote. Everywhere, people were testing fountain pens on little pads of paper, writing their names with the kind of ornate flourishes that you rarely see in modern handwriting. It was all I could do, with my carefully honed Biro-wielding hand, to draw a simple line without breaking a nib.

The art of handwriting – with Biro or fountain pen – is said to be steadily declining. It’s a far cry from the 19th and early 20th century, when ‘graphology’ was the word on many people’s lips (or should that be nibs?). Graphology complemented other forms of character assessment popular at the time, such as physiognomy (the analysis of character via facial features) and phrenology (the study of personality via bumps on the head). Richard Dimsdale Stocker’s The Language of Handwriting was distinctly phrenological in tone, listing the ’42 mental faculties’ and their ‘graphical signs’: traits ranging from amativeness to combativeness were listed, and each illustrated in the characteristic hand.

Books like Stocker’s clearly had entertainment value – his reproduced several celebrity signatures, including that of Thomas Edison – but graphology also had a serious side. It was believed that one could detect all kinds of character in handwriting – not just the benign. Thus, Stocker also reproduced the signature of baby farmer and murderer Amelia Dyer, whose signature was ‘formed of a series of hard, inflexible strokes’.

Some of Stocker's '42 mental faculties'

Some of Stocker’s ’42 mental faculties’

If a person’s writing could convey their character so accurately, it might also be an effective diagnostic tool, and writing was increasingly incorporated into asylum admission exams. Within the asylum, patient’s spoken language also came under scrutiny. A simple conversation, for example, could lead a person into divulging their delusions. As research into the physiology of mental disease advanced, psychiatrists also became interested in the mechanics of speech . Articulation might be tested by asking the patient to repeat phrases such as ‘Biblical criticism’ or tongue twisters (‘Round the rugged rock’). Speech disturbance and difficulty writing were often grouped together, and both were regarded as symptomatic of mental condition.

George H., admitted to the West Riding Asylum in 1895, was aphasic:

‘He apparently is able to read, but cannot write what he wishes to say. He can write his name fairly easily – but on asking him his age he took up the pencil & started to write ‘Ge-’ as though again beginning his name. He then shook his head & made signs that he could not. He tried to say something to me, making a quite inarticulate sound & on being asked to write it wrote ‘Mothor’. Taking this to mean Mother I asked him where she lived & he wrote ‘Mothor’ again, then looking at what he had written seemed dissatisfied & wrote ‘Morthor’, then ‘Mo’, ‘Mo’ as though he were intending to write something else. He then threw down the pencil, & appeared angry at his inability to write.’

George’s difficulties led the examining doctor to diagnose a probable brain tumour, demonstrating the weight placed upon speech and writing as indications of cerebral mischief (remember, too, Broca’s celebrated ‘Tan’ case).

The use of handwriting to investigate mental disease at this time is an interesting episode in the history of psychiatry. Whilst practitioners of graphology were keen to point out that theirs was a scientific endeavour, and assessments like that of George were primarily concerned with motor ability, some pronouncements sounded suspiciously like the kind of thing that might be whispered inside a carnival booth. The idea that the handwriting of the insane could betray their mental condition produced a long list of possible danger signs: excessive sloping of letters, the use of capital instead of small letters, large pen strokes, rounded coils at the ends of words, frequent underlining, and the ‘ornamentation’ of letters. On this basis, I’m afraid that several Writing Equipment Show delegates could be viewed with suspicion.

But it’s difficult to dismiss asylum doctor’s use of graphological ideas as mere quackery, or the testing of patient’s writing as just another artefact of the ‘clinical gaze’. In analysing writing abilities, many patients were encouraged to sign their names in the casebook, adding their own very personal inscriptions to the record, and by telling their stories in speech or in writing, patients necessarily entered into a dialogue with the doctor. Whilst this was rarely an equal dialogue, it was a dialogue nonetheless, one that was not always recast in medical terminology, and that yielded potentially vital information about mental illness and speech difficulties.


One Comment leave one →
  1. a wong permalink
    March 18, 2013 12:47 pm

    reminds me a story that the allies tried to “get into” the mind of Stalin during the Yalta conference

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