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My Research

Senility before Alzheimer: Old Age in British Psychiatry, 1835-1910

My thesis uses psychiatry - its ideas and institutions - as a starting point to examine the way in which mental decline and disorder in old age was understood and responded to in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (particularly in London). I argue that senility - the agedness of older people - became more important to the way that mental disorder in old age was categorised and explained during this period. Simply put, insanity in old age was increasingly likely to be labelled as ‘senile insanity’ towards the end of the nineteenth century. We can see this in the growing range of ‘senile’ mental disorders which appeared in psychiatric texts, in the increasing use of these senile diagnostic labels in the asylum, and in the way that the aged mentally disordered were described in policy documents and debates.

I suggest that this change was the product of a variety of different factors. Changes in psychiatric theory were important – particularly the influence of evolutionary and dissolutionary models of mental function and disorder, the development of theories of cerebral localization, and the overall imperative to link mental disruption to physical causes. The influence of these theories on psychiatric practice within the asylum – on the types of information about patients which asylum doctors elicited and recorded – also encouraged the emergence of the senile patient.

One of the most striking findings of my thesis relates to the place of ‘senile dements’ in Victorian social policy - the national and local debates over how and by whom the dependent poor should be dealt with. The senile poor were a perpetual residuum, too insane for the workhouse, but too physically decrepit and unpromising for the asylum. At a population level, and often at an individual level, the senile were viewed as a problem to be removed, but rarely a group whose specific needs should be acknowledged and catered for.

My wider research interests include:

- The long history of dementia and old age

- Social policy relating to the aged from the eighteenth century to the present

- Decision-making in dementia care past and present

- The conception of ageing as natural and/or pathological

- Old age as ‘second childhood’

- Nineteenth-century psychiatry and the history of the asylum

- Theories of evolution in the long nineteenth century (particularly as they relate to theories of ageing)

- The experience and management of institutional death and dying in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

- The role of the humanities in gerontology and the possibilities for genuine interdisciplinarity


Victorian dotage


Hilary Marland

Hilary.Marland (at)