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Morison Lectures.—Lecture V.: The Distribution of Insanity

  • John Macpherson

In the second lecture I discussed the distribution of the neuroses throughout the various races of mankind, but the subject was necessarily curtailed for want of time and space. It would not, I believe, be a difficult task to prove that no race of man is free from very extensive affection by epilepsy or hysteria or many other nervous affections regarding which we have but an imperfect account When we come to inquire into the similar prevalence of insanity, however, the evidence is much more negative, and although there is no race of men who are known to be free from it, yet on the whole travellers are in too many instances silent. In many instances it is evident that the subject does not interest them, while in still other instances they simply say that they saw no insane people. Hence has arisen the mistaken idea that insanity is a product of civilisation and that it is rare or unknown among savage or barbarous people. I have taken the trouble to collect numerous references from the writings of travellers on this subject, and I shall read a few of them for the purpose of showing the unfounded nature of the belief which has arisen on this question. Dr. Felkin informs me that he has seen in all some thirty to forty lunatics on the White Nile. He also saw some maniacs chained. He was the first to tell me a curious fact, of which I have since had confirmation from other sources, viz., that the type of insanity among the African natives is different from that in Europe. The prevailing form of mania is a short acute kind, lasting only a day or two, during which the sufferer is driven away to the woods or voluntarily runs away, returning again in a few days apparently restored in mind. Idiocy was very common in his experience and so was suicide. Thompson, in his book Through Massailand, states that he found insanity very common. The myths and folk stories of the people are full of reference to it. Those affected by lunacy are driven away from the habitation of sane people or are otherwise isolated. He also found idiocy very common, especially among the dwarfs and albinoes, the latter of whom were numerous, and about the prevalence of mental defect among them there was no doubt. In a book entitled The Indian Tribes of the United States, edited by Francis S. Drake, reference is made to an Oregon Indian woman who appeared to be demented: “She sang in a wild manner, and would offer to the spectators all the little articles she possessed, scarifying herself in a horrid manner if anyone refused to accept her presents. She seemed to be an object of pity to the Indians, who allowed her to do as she pleased.” Captain Cook, in his Voyages, referring to the South Sea Islanders, says: “We met with two instances of persons of disordered mind, the one a man at Owyhee and the other a woman at Oneheeow. It appeared from the particular attention and respect paid to them that the opinion of their being inspired by the Divinity, which obtains among most of the nations of the East, is also received here” (in the Pacific).

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(1) Delivered before the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, February 1st, 1905.—

(2) Vol. I, p. 205—

(3) Cook's Voyages, vol. iii, p. 131.—

(4) Central Africa, p. 94.—

(5) Journal of Mental Science, vols, xii, xvii, and xxiii.—

(6) De la folie des Animaux Paris, 1839.—

(7) Fandelize l'Insufficance Thyroidienne, Paris, 1903.—

(8) Centralb, für Nervenheilk. und Psychiat., July, 1904.—

(9) Quoted by Delage, L'Hérédité p. 214.—

(10) Ireland, The Blot on the Brain.—

(11) Brachet, Path. Ment. des Rois de France.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
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Morison Lectures.—Lecture V.: The Distribution of Insanity

  • John Macpherson
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