Epilepsy in the North Wales Hospital

Epilepsy has for many centuries been associated with mental disorder, sadly even as late as the nineteenth to early twentieth century people suffering with epilepsy were often admitted to mental institutions. Nowadays thankfully it is not seen as a psychiatric condition, and a person with epilepsy is unlikely to be treated by a mental health unit.

During the second half of the 19th century, developments in medicine were made in the treatment of epilepsy and epileptic seizures. The first two substances which were proven to have an anti-epileptic effect and which are still used today, were bromine (first used in 1857) and phenobarbitone (first used in 1912). Evidence of the use of these drugs in treating patients with epilepsy at the North Wales hospital can be found in the later patient case files and epileptic record book.

Patients who were admitted with epilepsy, were housed separately in the Epileptic and Suicidal dormitory. This dormitory was shared with patients who were a high suicide risk, presumably so they could be better observed.

It is evident from studying the patient case files, that epilepsy was often noted as the secondary condition, the primary diagnosis was generally that of dementia or ‘imbecility’ (an unpleasant word to our ears but one which was considered a medical term at the time). Yet, many of the symptoms recorded, including memory loss, aggression and confusion, were symptoms associated with epilepsy.

According to the Epilepsy society more than half a million people, and 1 in every 200 children and young people under the age of 18 have epilepsy. The annual report of 1849 (1 year after the hospital opened), records that of the 142 patients admitted, 6 were diagnosed with epilepsy. By 1885, patient numbers were up to 526, with 4 deaths caused by epilepsy.

William Owen, aged 58, was one such patient, he was admitted to the hospital on the 7th July 1885. On admission he was diagnosed with ‘dementia and epilepsy’, having inured his head during an epileptic fit 12 months earlier. William died four months later in the hospital, the cause of death being ‘epilepsy exhaustion’.

By 1918, 192 patients were admitted to the hospital, 13 of whom were diagnosed with epilepsy. Children as young as the age of 6 were admitted, and often the cause was due to epilepsy, as specialist children’s services did not exist as they do today.

On 29th December 1904, 9 year old Edward Jones, was admitted to the hospital. On admission Edward was diagnosed with ‘imbecility with epilepsy’, having ‘tried to put his sister in the fire’. He was to remain in the hospital until his death on 7 May 1918, aged just 22.

Sadly Edward and William’s stories were certainly not uncommon, and several similar cases can be found within the records.

Part of the NWH collection has already been catalogued and made available, however some records mentioned in this blog are as yet uncatalogued. The records will be available to view at the end of the ‘Unlocking the Asylum’ project in October 2019. In addition, please note that due to NHS regulations records of patients and staff which contain sensitive personal information are closed for between 75 to 100 years.

Rhian Evans

Project Support Officer (Unlocking the Asylum)

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