Today’s tweet 8/3/11

“Why, I’ve been sitting here for five years, and I shall sit on here to the end. I’m just waiting you see. We’re all just waiting.”

From an article called ‘In the Day-Room of a London Workhouse’ by Edith Sellers, published in “Nineteenth Century and After: a monthly review” in September 1902.

This was said by one of the elderly inmates of a “Great London Workhouse” (the author declines to tell us which one) which Edith Sellers visited as part of her Europe-wide investigation of different systems of caring for the poor and aged. This woman was one of the 20,000 over-65s living in London workhouses at the time, a number that was much higher than in the rest of the country, although it was by no means rare to see an older face in the workhouse throughout the nineteenth century. They found their way there through the reluctance of London Unions to pay outdoor relief even to the very old, and through a general culture of poverty, mortality and high rents that left few families able to afford to support anyone too old or infirm to work – if the elderly person in question even had any family left alive in the first place.

Sellar’s piece is a damning indictment of the conditions of the elderly in the workhouse. It is littered with poignant statements from the inmates like the one above, such as a man who noted pointedly that he was just “killing time”, and another who told Sellers: “I had to choose between the workhouse and starvation, you see, and – I chose badly.”

She makes little mention of the mental state or mental infirmities of the people she talks to (or lack thereof); although the overall atmosphere is one of dejection but resignation. We know that there were older people with chronic mental infirmities living in workhouses, and many asylum superintendents felt that that was where they should stay. Seller’s sympathies, it seems, were not with such people: she pitied those who must pass their days “elbow to elbow with a jabbering idiot”. More insightful or engaged pictures of the experiences of the elderly mentally ill in the workhouse, I have yet to find.

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What about ‘hourglass’ or ‘athletic’?

Writing about:  “Memory loss more likely for pear shaped women” in the Metro 15/7/10

The title tells you most of what you need to know.

150 years ago it was common practice to blame a woman’s mental state on her gynaecology.  Perhaps I should be glad that this study isn’t blaming memory loss on ‘uterine disturbance’, but it still seems that attempts to connect women’s (and, it seems, only women’s) bodies and their minds is still alive and well.  It’s no longer her uterus that’s the problem:  this study tells us that a women’s mental state is now seen to be a manifestation of her bodily type (in particular her size) and vice versa.   Put down the cake, love – not only will it make you fat and unlovable, it’ll also give you Alzheimer’s.

I imagine that the authors of the original report gave a reason for only studying women.  It would have been nice for the journalist to have passed that information on…so we could rip it to pieces.

As you can probably tell, I’m riled with indignant feminist rage.  But there are even more reasons to feel uncomfortable with this study (or, at least, the reporting of it).  Consider the last paragraph:

‘The pear-shape is incredibly common, and while this study doesn’t explain fully the link between body shape and brain function, it surely makes the case for watching the scales,’ said Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust.

This kind of comment is what keeps me going back to the more radical critiques of the Alzheimer’s movement.  That the link between body shape and brain function isn’t “fully” explained by this study, means that it has not been at all explained by this study.  Without a working theoretical model of how fat on different parts of the body can affect the brain and its ability to form and retain models, all they have is a line on a graph:  correlation implying causation.  All glued together with a load of sexist ideology, body policing, and pretty bad reporting.  No wonder I’m angry.

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Have you weighed your brain recently?

I saw this today:

BBC News:  Big head ‘may protect against dementia’.

And couldn’t help thinking of several of the articles I’ve been coming across in the Journal of Mental Science, such as John Thurnam’s  On the Weight of the Brain and the Circumstances Affecting It from April 1866, or a statement by another writer in 1877 that

“the brain weight is lowest in idiocy, gradually rising through brain wasting, general paralysis, senile dementia, simple dementia, recent insanity up to chronic mania, in which it is highest.”

Amazing:  it’s as if the weight of the brain increases with the number of thoughts that are running through it.

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What is “the last infirmity of noble minds”?

In 1862 J.C. Bucknill and Daniel Hack Tuke, two of the most illustrious (British) psychiatrists of their day, published their great textbook: A Manual of Psychological Medicine.  In it, they offer a rather poignant description of those who

“have lost their faculties by reason of old age, and are illustrations of Senile Dementia — which in some instances may be truly called ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’.”

Bucknill and Tuke’s case-study  example of ‘senile dementia’ was the much beloved “poet [laureate] Southey”:  they clearly felt that the best of the country could be taken by this condition, and that their ‘nobility’ was by no means diminished with it.

I loved this notion, and the phrase “the last infirmity of noble minds”, but I has a sneaking suspicion that dementia had not always been the “infirmity” in question.  I decided to dig a little deeper.

Thanks to google  –  and to my nan’s awesome ability to remember stuff she read at university despite not knowing what she did yesterday – I traced the phrase back to antiquity.  Then, the well-know saying was

“The desire for fame is the last infirmity of noble minds”,

and it was in this guise that it travelled up the ages.  John Milton wrote in Lycidas

“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise (That last infirmity of noble mind)To scorn delights, and live laborious days”.

The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (and I’m sure many others) picked up on the phrase in his own musings on the love of fame.

By the nineteenth century it seems that many celebrated pontificaters were playing around with the “last infirmity of noble minds” but no one seems to have been able to agree what exactly that infitmity was.  J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote that “Ambition is the last infirmity of noble minds”, while critic John Ruskin said that

“That thirst (for applause) if the last infirmity of noble minds, is also the first infirmity of weak ones”.

“The last infirmity of noble minds” have clearly been part of common literate parlance in Britain for several centuries, but apparently more often referring to fame and ambition than to senile dementia.  In fact, I have only found one other reference to dementia in relation to this phrase, from another celebrated psychiatrist, James Crichton Browne, in 1874:

“Senile dementia has been called ‘the last infirmity of noble minds’, but experience will convince you that it is also the infirmity of minds which have no pretensions to nobility whatsoever.”

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