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University puts humane mental health treatment on record

Posted on 11 September 2002

Historic records about one of the most important English hospitals for the mentally ill, The Retreat, are to be made more accessible by the University of York via a new electronic catalogue. It will make the Archive easier to search by researchers and members of the public.

The Retreat, founded by the Society of Friends in a building on the outskirts of York in 1796, had an immense influence on humanitarian psychiatric treatment in this country and abroad, and continued to be a model of good practice throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It continues its work today.

The Wellcome Trust and the British Library Research Resources in Medical History programme are providing a £34,243 grant for the new catalogue of the Archive of The Retreat to be compiled by the Borthwick Institute.

The Retreat Archive is consulted by scholars from all over the world. It reflects the special character of the Retreat which pioneered the treatment of mentally-ill people as patients and not as criminally insane, or evil people. It quickly became famous for its use of ‘moral therapy’ - an early form of pyschotherapy - which employed mild methods of treatment for the insane, in great contrast to the harsh, custodial approach of most contemporary institutions. The Archive also details the characteristics of a nineteenth-century middle-class psychiatric institution, and is unusually complete and comprehensive.

Dr Katherine Webb, Retreat archivist, said: "The Retreat appears to have thrown very little away, and the records from administrative, financial, staff, estate and patient records are very extensive. They include letters and diaries written by patients themselves, housekeeping papers, and nurse training documents."

The size of the Archive has increased by 80 per cent in the last 25 years, and the updated catalogue will allow more specific searching by researchers, who will also have access to previously unlisted material.

The new catalogue will be compatible with those for the archives of three other major York psychiatric institutions held at the Borthwick B Clifton Hospital (formerly the North Riding Asylum, 1847-1994), Bootham Park (formerly the York Lunatic Asylum, opened 1777), and Naburn Hospital (formerly York City Asylum, 1906-1988)

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153