Accepted paper:

The Devon County Mental Hospital (DCMH): 'good air' incarnate


Nicole Baur (University of Exeter)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on authentic documents complemented by memories and personal narratives, this paper explores the Devon County Mental Hospital (DCMH) as a visual representation of 19th century concerns regarding the effects of breathing ‘good/bad’ air on mental well-being.

Paper long abstract:

Ever since the Hippocratic 'Airs, Waters and Places', medical writings have paid tribute to concerns about nosopoetic and therapeutic qualities of the atmosphere and air we breathe. With a few notable exceptions, before the 19th century, the focal point of such concerns was physical well-being. However, these concerns would soon enter a new level. Psychiatrists in the UK began to acquire dominant, if not monopolistic, positions in treating mental ill-health from the mid-19th century - within the walls of their institutions. Outside, they continued to operate at the medical and social periphery. Entering the debates about connections between breathing 'good/bad' air and mental illness must therefore have been an exciting opportunity to advance their social standing as well as reputation amongst fellow medical experts. The former DCMH near Exeter is a visual representation of these efforts, which manifested themselves in the location and design of the Hospital building and its grounds as well as treatment provided within. Drawing on surviving documents of the DCMH (architectural drawings, administrative papers and a large corpus of authentic patient files), complemented by memories and personal narratives of former patients and staff, this paper explores the above concerns and debates. Findings will offer new insights into contemporary discussions on the effects of the dualism of breathing 'good/bad' air on mental well-being.

panel P01
Exposure: interdisciplinary perspectives on breath, air and atmospheres