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Samuel Tuke

Samuel Tuke (1784-1857) was a prominent mental health reformer and philanthropist working in York. His work especially focused on the conditions of institutions and the treatments used for psychological and mental health conditions, and is recorded in numerous documents held in the Tuke family archive at The Borthwick.

Within York, he was actively involved in The Retreat, an asylum for Quakers requiring care due to psychiatric conditions, and achieved reforms to the conditions in the York Asylum, in view of the very poor conditions within that asylum previously. As Tylor’s (1900, 51) biography, Samuel Tuke; his life, work and thoughts, notes, “One of the first fruits produced by the Description was the reform of the York Asylum for the insane poor. Like many kindred institutions, this establishment had entirely failed of its original purpose. It had become a hopeless, cruel prison for the miserable patients, a source of illicit revenue to the physician who, through the inertness or favour of the governors, was its absolute ruler. “Scarcely any kind of abuse or indecency,” said a writer in the Quarterly Review, “can be imagined that was not shown to have been perpetrated in the York asylum.”” (TUKE/2/2/6)

That work which Tylor refers to, Samuel Tuke’s (1813) Description of The Retreat, an institution near York, for insane persons of the Society of Friends (TUKE/2/1/8/6/1), was according to Samuel’s preface designed to communicate The Retreat’s working practices, with the hope of improving similar institutions:

“At the present time, when a considerable degree of interest is excited respecting the treatment of insane persons, and when the government of our country has recently made it a subject of legislation, it is presumed that any account of existing Institutions, which may throw light on the method of treating this deplorable class of our fellow-creatures, will not be unacceptable to the public.

The Establishment which is described in the following pages, though on a small scale, has so far met with approbation of many judicious persons, who have had an opportunity of minutely inspecting its internal economy and management, that I have been induced to attempt such a representation, as it is hoped will be useful to those who are engaged in similar institutions.

Contemplating the loss of reason as preeminent in the catalogue of human afflictions; and believing that the experience of the Retreat throws some light on the means of its mitigation, and also that it has demonstrated, beyond all contradiction, the superior efficacy, both in respect of cure and security, of a mild system of treatment in all cases of mental disorder, an account of that experience has long appeared to me, due to the public.” (pages v-vi)

Page from a printed book called Description of The Retreat, by Samuel Tuke. The book is printed in black type on a paper background, and the image shows page v. Page from a printed book called Description of The Retreat, by Samuel Tuke. The book is printed in black type on a paper background, and the image shows page vi.

Alongside the history and administration of the retreat, Samuel’s Chapter IV attempts to communicate the means of treatment trialled and used at The Retreat, although he laments that this is largely an account of failure rather than success. Chapter V also considers ‘moral’ treatments, such as using fear to regulate a condition. Nonetheless, recognising the paucity of publications on treatments for psychological conditions at that time, it still provides a useful if highly antiquated record: ‘antimaniacal medicines’ are regarded as ineffective and potentially harmful during long-term use; warm baths of nearly an hour at 98 degrees are regarded as very useful, especially for melancholia; a connection between physical and psychological conditions is made, although not regarded as universal; topical bleeding was found useful for paroxysm; opium has unpleasant side-effects as a sedative for sleep, although food and porter do usefully aid sleep; that ‘maniacs’ are as susceptible to the cold and illnesses arising from it as anyone else; and that ‘diet, air, and exercise’ are considered potentially useful but lacking experiments given The Retreat’s set menu of milk, bread, porridge, pudding, ‘animal food’, fruit pudding, beer, tea, coffee, and cheese.

Case studies, anonymised, are even given. Discussing the effects of diet and withholding food, Samuel (p. 125) writes:

“Case 74, affords very striking evidence in favour of a liberal, nourishing diet, even where great “irritation of violence” exists. The patient was described as a furious dangerous lunatic; and the reducing system had been fully tried upon him, with an aggravation of his complaint. The opposite mode was then pursued; and his appetite, from being long famished, was almost voracious for many days. It gradually lessened, till it arrived at the common standard. He took no medicine; and under the treatment he met with, his irritation of mind gradually subsided, and his recovery was very rapid and complete.”

Page from a printed book called Description of The Retreat, by Samuel Tuke. The book is printed in black type on a paper background, and the image shows page 125.

The end of the book contains a useful table of patients, with their profiles, diagnosis, dates in The Retreat and outcome.

Samuel’s interests extended beyond York. In one letter (TUKE/1/20/1/15/3), he compared the practices of English hospitals to current work in Paris, and he also commented upon relevant legislation (TUKE/2/3/1/2/2).

Page from a handwritten 'cross letter' with the first line of text in black in running horizontally across the page, and the second set of text running vertically through the first, starting at the left hand side. The letter is on a paper background.
Medicalised institutions like The Retreat were not the only accommodation for people with impairments, nor the only focus for Samuel’s philanthropy. In The York Courant, December 9th 1841, a transcript of a debate was reproduced in which a new workhouse for York is debated. Samuel urged major reform to the present workhouse, particularly segregated facilities based on age, sex and sickness (TUKE/2/2/6/4/1-7). And, in a meeting of the York + North Midland Railway Company, 5th June 1841, he urged for more beds in the York Hospital. (TUKE/2/2/6/4/1-7). On 3 September 1846, he proposed the formation of the Health of Towns’ Association at York. (TUKE/2/2/6/4/1-7).

Samuel was not alone in this endeavour. In 1809, his grandfather William Tuke, who founded The Retreat, wrote to the governors of the York Lunatic Asylum to recommend its improvement in light of practices at The Retreat (TUKE/2/1/1/1/1). His father, Henry Tuke, also worked to found The Retreat (e.g. TUKE/2/3/1/2/1).