UKAHN Colloquium 2017

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I am now writing up my thesis on the Mental Health of the British in Colonial India, 1900-47. I have twice visited the Central Institute of Psychiatry in Ranchi, northern India, to look at their archives from the period when it was the European Mental Hospital from its foundation in 1918 until Independence in 1947. I have included a chapter on psychiatric nursing and I wished to present a discussion paper on this topic and learn from the expertise of professional historians of nursing.

My research proposed that there were numerous stressful factors which could lead to mental illness amongst the British in India. The climate was alien and often hostile, for many there was social and geographical isolation and there was the permanent fear amongst whites of another Great Rebellion or Indian Mutiny like the one in 1857-58. I have written about these pressures and how those Europeans who became mentally ill were cared for and treated in hospital. It has proved very difficult to find evidence on the work of psychiatric nurses. I was honoured to be able to interview a 93 year old who had served in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) during the Second World War, though she had not worked in a psychiatric hospital.

My paper had three main themes.

First was the lack of any organised voice for mental nurses in colonial India. The nurses’ professional body was the Trained Nurses Association of India with strong international connections and it produced each month the Nursing Journal of India. Each issue listed TNAI members but very few were recorded as working in mental hospitals.

The second theme concerned the indifference of the colonial nursing establishment towards mental nurses and what they contributed to nursing. Papers at the TNAI’s annual conference on mental health issues were rare. This apathy even caused the International Council of Nurses in Geneva in 1937 to ask the TNAI for a report on mental health nursing in the colony.

The first two themes proved to me that the voices of the mental nurses in colonial India, like those of their patients, were quiet and generally ignored. However my third theme concerned the stentorian words of the male psychiatrists who knew exactly, they said, what the ideal mental nurse should be. One such doctor filled pages in medical and nursing journals and in his autobiography about the ideal mental nurse. Mental nurses could only be female. Although she did not always have to be “the cleverest or the best educated woman” she had to have the “God-given gift of saying and doing, without hesitation or apparent effort, exactly the right thing in the right way and at the right time.” She “must not coax or lie” to a patient in the hope of short term goals and, of course, she must never promise a patient who will not go to bed that they were merely being asked to go to their rooms to dress for a concert or a dance. If she did this she would inevitably lose respect through her deceit and she could undermine trust in the hospital1.

The best counter I could find came from a Miss Frodsham in her address to the TNAI’s annual conference in 1935. She outlined the three main problems for her profession in India. The first was that the selection and dismissal of nurses was always in the hands of men, i.e. male doctors. She asserted that female nursing superintendents ought to have the power to do this. Her second issue was that hospitals might lose their reputations with the public simply if one nurse ‘goes astray,’ if she demonstrated some culturally unacceptable behaviour or individuality. Her third problem was that nurses lacked the courage to challenge the first two2. Unfortunately it seemed that Miss Frodsham’s sharp insights were never seriously addressed in the remaining years of the Raj.

The colloquium, with the effervescent enthusiasm of its audience and the stimulating but non-threatening atmosphere, proved very valuable to me. And now, back to the writing …

  1. Berkeley-Hill, Owen Lt Col ‘Some principles of mental nursing,’ The British Journal of Nursing, July 1930, p. 171. Berkeley-Hill was the medical superintendent of the European Mental Hospital from 1918 to 1934.
  2. The Nursing Journal of India, vol. xxvii, no 1, January 1936, p. 8.


Michael Young is a PhD student at the University of Huddersfield

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