“Bringing Epilepsy Out of the Shadows”*

*Title of article by Rajendra Kale, published in British Medical Journal, 1997.

Fiona MacCarthy: William Morris (1994) Chapter Three: Oxford 1853-55

“It does seem certain that Morris’s famous rages at their worst could develop into something more alarming: a kind of seizure in which he partially lost consciousness…It appears that in these states Morris did not actually fall to the ground but remained immobile, unaware of his surroundings for what could be many minutes, in what would now be described as partial seizure…One of the puzzles that remain is whether Morris’s “translation” was followed by amnesia, an involuntary obliteration of the incident from his memory, or whether the almost ingratiating quietness that followed on his outbursts was the result of his dismay and his embarrassment.”

Fiona MacCarthy: William Morris (1994) Chapter Seven: Queen Square 1865-69:

“No. 25 (Queen Square), the house next door to William Morris, was a Home for Gentlewomen. A census of the period lists fifteen lady residents, unmarried or widowed, mostly in late middle age.

It is perhaps surprising that Morris is said to have kissed the earth of London on returning. But he was resilient, believing in tomorrow, not regretting what was over. Georgie, who observed him carefully, had noted that he said goodbye to Red House “in his unflinching way”.”

Queen Square and nineteenth-century reforming institutions: a talk by Deborah Colville and Rosemary Ashton at the Mary Ward Centre, Queen Square, 12 May 2009:

“All the major hospitals in Queen Square followed the same trajectory, beginning with the addition of six to ten beds to a Georgian residential house, followed by expansion into a neighbouring house or houses on the same basis, until finally they all reached a critical point where the need for more space, combined with new ideas about hospital design and clinical needs, led to the construction of a purpose-built edifice to replace the original houses.

The National Hospital opened in 1860 in no. 24 Queen Square…in 1866… it had expanded into no. 23 as well, and had 36 beds. It had also expanded into the other neighbouring house, no. 25, by 1879. By 1881 it had 83 in-patients, in buildings in Queen Square and adjacent Powis Place. Its buildings were then all demolished in the 1880s and replaced by a grand purpose-built hospital.’

From website Embroidered Minds: Investigating how epilepsy affected the family of William Morris:

“William Morris wrote hundreds of letters to Jenny, his eldest daughter, from the time she developed epilepsy. Over a hundred survive. But none from her to him! It’s clear from his letters that she wrote many politically, artistically informed letters in return. Who destroyed hers? Why? Because of Victorian attitudes to illness? There was great social stigma and fear attached to the condition, with epilepsy being the cause of one in four of those committed to mental institutions for life.

It was the mystery of the missing letters that started Leslie (Forbes) writing a novel, but as she searched for links between William Morris’s letters and Jenny’s epilepsy, she was struck by the question of why no Morris historians gave the National Hospital for Paralysis and Epilepsy more than a passing reference, or flagged up the family’s unavoidable association with Queen Square’s neurological circle, where women played an important role.

For 17 years the Morris factory and showrooms were adjacent to the National Hospital. William, Jane and their daughters lived ‘above the shop’ for the first 7 years. He maintained a bedroom and studio at Queen Square even after moving the family out -and he was still working there when Jenny developed epilepsy a few years later. Yet there are no records of her being treated there.

At that time, in Queen Square, every second house belonged to either a medical or an arts establishment. Artists, craftsmen and doctors couldn’t fail to rub shoulders. They drank at the same pubs, several doctors were skilled artists. As previously mentioned, the story and the project is not about what did happen but what might have.’

Fiona MacCarthy: William Morris (1994) Chapter Eleven: Leek 1875-78:

“In March Jenny had a fit while sitting in the garden in Oneglia…Morris, terribly alarmed to hear the news, attempted to contact the London specialist in charge of Jenny, John Russell Reynolds, the expert in nervous diseases who from 1893 was president of the Royal College of Physicians. Reynolds was away. All Morris could do was write a letter to be forwarded. In desperation he requested new supplies of Radcliffe’s nostrum of bromides to Jenny’s old prescription to be sent out to Oneglia. Morris’s own analysis of the prescription told him it was “hashish or bhang like Monte-Christo and the Arabian Nights”. His own plans to get to Italy firmed up under this crisis. He told Janey he would definitely be coming out in April, selling books to finance the journey if he had to. He set out towards the end of the month, leaving London on the night-Mail train, travelling via Paris.”

“Abstract: John Russell Reynolds Posted in History,Special Feature on 12th Jul 2019, Advances in clinical neuroscience & rehabilitation: ACNR.

JMS Pearce MD, FRCP Emeritus Consultant Neurologist, Department of Neurology, Hull Royal Infirmary, UK.
When neurology began to develop as a specialty, Russell Reynolds was one of the first neurologists appointed to the Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, Queen Square.

Of many contributions his work on epilepsy was influential, espousing many new concepts. He followed and developed Hughlings Jackson’s  original ideas about positive and negative neurological symptoms. His approach to patients was holistic at a time when more objectively defined notions of illness dominated medicine. He wrote on vertigo, and about criminal lunacy, and his book The Diagnosis of Diseases of the Brain, Spinal Cord, Nerves and their appendages  was a major text of the period.

Well versed in poetry, philosophy, art, and music, he was widely admired. He became President of the Royal College of Physicians.”

Perspect Biol Med. (2013 Summer) “Was it epilepsy?: misdiagnosing Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)” Hirschhorn N, Longsworth P.

“Lyndall Gordon’s recent biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (2010), tells with high verve the story of generational infighting over poet Emily Dickinson’s posthumous presentation to the world. Equally dramatic is Gordon’s hypothesis that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which led Gordon to seemingly solve the ineffable mystery of Dickinson’s reclusion, a conundrum in her own time and still so in ours. Gordon’s startling diagnosis has been commended by book reviewers and on talk shows. Her hypothesis is based on two lines of inquiry. First, she avers that a compound called glycerine, which Dickinson took regularly in the early 1850s, was an anti-epileptic, basing this notion on its presence in a mixture containing the soporific chloral hydrate, a prescription first advised for epilepsy some two decades later. Second, Gordon proposes a genetic strain of epilepsy in the Dickinson family. In the process, Gordon recruits Dickinson’s various illnesses to her hypothesis. This article refutes Gordon’s claims on scientific, clinical, and biographical grounds. It reviews Dickinson’s medical history to establish a differential diagnosis, in which epilepsy is considered and rejected.”

From May 20 to May 26 this year, National Epilepsy Week will be taking place in the UK to raise awareness for those affected by epilepsy, what epilepsy is, who’s affected and what can be done to help those who suffer from this condition.