General Paralysis of the Insane at the North Wales Hospital

On 31st August 1917 Samuel Morris was admitted into the North Wales Hospital. He was a former soldier who was discharged from the army on 9th February 1917 on the grounds that he was no longer physically fit for service. His case notes from the hospital show that upon admission he was found to have “no idea of time or place, incoherent speech, tremor of tongue, face and limbs”. He died on the 29th January 1918 aged 41, leaving behind a wife and five children.

Upon admission Samuel was diagnosed with general paralysis of the insane (G.P.I.), a neuropsychiatric disorder which causes degenerative changes in the brain. By 1917 it was understood that G.P.I. was the outcome of untreated syphilis, and usually occurs within ten years of the initial syphilis infection. Samuel’s army records show that he was diagnosed with syphilis during his time in serving in South Africa.

There was a rise in the number of patients admitted into the hospital with G.P.I. in the decade following the end of the First World War as a result of men contracting syphilis during military service. In his 1928 report, Frank G. Jones the Medical Superintendent stated that:

“Cases of general paralysis is being now definitely regarded as due to venereal disease and also that it sets about 10 years after primary infection and it is now ten years since the war ceased, it is of course natural that we can now expect the annual increase to abate and hope that the figures become less again”.                      

The rise in the numbers admitted with G.P.I. was not as acute at the North Wales Hospital as it was in some hospitals, owing to the fact that the population of the area was relatively static, indeed the problem was much worse in cities particularly port cities. However the Medical Superintendents annual report from 1931 still shows how, in the ten years after the end of the war, the numbers of those admitted with G.P.I. increased, before declining again after 1928.

 


Number of G.P.I. cases admitted
1924 3
1925 3
1926 6
1927 8
1928 12
1929 7
1930 8
1931 2

 

In the late 1910’s methods of treating the disease were being developed, and in 1922 Whittingham Mental Hospital in Lancashire became the first in Britain to treat patients using malarial therapy, which involved infecting patients with malaria to induce a fever, during which the development of G.P.I. was often held in abeyance. As the North Wales Hospital lacked the facilities for this form of treatment, patients were sent to the mental hospital in Chester from 1926, as recorded in the Medical Superintendents annual report for that year:

“On January 19th 1926, I transferred a male patient to Chester Mental Hospital. He received inoculations, and has been discharged recovered to his home. It is my opinion that in early and suitable cases of G.P.I. the disease can be arrested by this malarial treatment”. 

As time went on newer methods for the treatment of G.P.I. were introduced including sulphur injections which could be administered at the North Wales Hospital. In the 1940’s the advent of penicillin marked the near eradication of the problems associated with syphilis and the numbers of those admitted into mental hospitals with G.P.I. fell dramatically.

 

Lindsey Sutton

Project Archivist (Unlocking the Asylum)

Samuel Morris’ army record is held at The National Archives, reference WO 363, and can be viewed at https://www.findmypast.co.uk/.

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