Sir William Wilde visits the Vienna Lunatic Asylum

Oscar Wilde’s father, the surgeon Sir William Wilde, visits the lunatic asylum in Vienna and is dismayed by what he sees. The following excerpt is from a book he published in 1843, Austria: its literary, scientific, and medical institutions: with notes upon the present state of science, and a guide to the hospitals and sanatory establishments of Vienna. As regards the Narrenturm (above), I need to check this but it seems clear to me that its “Panopticon” structure (completed by Isidore Canevale in 1784) actually predates the Panopticon concept for prison design famously conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1786. Might Bentham have been inspired by the Vienna design? Unrelated trivium: the building is jocularly known by the Viennese as the Gugelhupf, on account of its resemblance to the cake of that name.

The Lunatic Asylum — Bie Irrenanstalt. This great division of the establishment is situated to the north of the Krankenhaus, between it and the Military Hospital, from each of which it can be entered. It consists of two compartments — the madhouse, where the violent and incurable are confined; a prison, which I rejoice to say, is now scarcely known in the rest of Europe; and the Lazareth which is more of the nature of the ordinary lunatic asylums of this country : the entire is capable of receiving as many as three hundred and seventy patients. The former Irrenthurm, or Narrenthurm, is a huge circular tower, standing apart from the rest of the buildings, constructed in the form of a cylinder, five stories high, with a yard in the centre, and containing one hundred and thirty-nine wards and cells, with beds for two hundred and fifty lunatics. The floor and ceilings are stone-arched, and round the inner wall runs a corridor, from which the cells radiate outwards in each story ; the whole is heated on the same principle as the General Hospital.

This tower was built in 1784, at a period when the object was to secure the greatest number of insane within the least possible space, and when lunatic asylums were the very worst description of gaols, erected and con- ducted without regard to health, cleanliness, or the hope of amending the condition of their unhappy inmates ; and, I regret to say, that as far as my inspection of it was permitted — on two several occasions — as such it re- mains to this day, a wretched, filthy prison, close and ill-ventilated, its smell overpowering, and the sight of its unfortunate occupants, frantic, chained, and many of them naked — disgusting to the visitor. With the greatest care and under the kindest treatment, insanity is ever humiliating, even to those accustomed to its horrors ; but here it was, and I fear still is, sickening to behold.

On the first morning that I visited it, a crowd of country folk, many of whom were women, waited for admittance at the massive outer grating. The bars and bolts having been withdrawn, they were conducted through the corridors along with me, as a mere matter of curiosity, or as one would go to see a collection of wild beasts ; and wild they certainly were — the few who had by long-continued custom become thus familiar with, or indifferent to, the public gaze, had their pe- culiar energies soon lashed to frenzy, by the inhuman taunt of some hardened keeper, who was more than once called up by our conductor to excite the impotent rage of some particular individual, perhaps by allusion to the very cause of his or her insanity : all this was for the gratification of the rustic visitors. Further details are, I feel, superfluous; but since I visited Grand Cairo, I have not witnessed such a scene.

Some years ago, Austria, impressed with the wretched condition of the Vienna lunatic asylum, sent a young physician to travel and collect information on the subject of the care of the insane in other countries. Dr. Juhus, of philanthropic celebrity, has informed me that the report of this gentleman was a very good one, and ably drawn up; yet, still, this blot upon humanity is permitted to exist as an “Imperial Royal Institution.” This state of things in a city calling itself civilized, and under the very nose of monarchy, surprised me the more, for, that one of the best managed institutions of the kind I have ever seen is that at Prague, under the direction of the intelligent and philanthropic Dr. Riedel. This admirable asylum contains three hundred and thirty beds, and is most humanely and scientifically conducted ; it is well worth the inspection of all who visit that ancient and magnificent capital. The system pursued there of engaging the attention, and employing the minds of all the patients, by moderate labour, household occupations, and amusements, is worthy of imitation. The reading, music, and billiard-rooms, though filled with lunatics, were as quiet and well-conducted as many of those used by the so called sane portion of the population. During my visit, the band played some excellent music ; and dancing, and even balls have been lately introduced with a happy effect. From fifty to sixty patients are discharged cured annually.

Next is the Lazareth, a very old building, that was formerly used as a plague hospital. It is separated from the tower by a yard and the botanic garden of the Josephinum Academy. It consists of two separate compartments, with five male and six female wards, besides twelve separate rooms for patients of a higher class — the whole number of beds being one hundred and twenty. This division of the asylum I found clean and orderly, though, as a house of recovery, the treatment still adopted there is but little conducive. The milder cases, and those still considered within the pale of hope and art, are received into this division, which has a garden attached to it for the use of patients. Pupils are not admitted to the wards of the asylum ;-f nor does the subject of insanity form a portion of practical medical instruction in Austria ; a circumstance to be regretted in a country where so many are afflicted with that awful visitation, and the great majority of whose institutions for the insane are under such bad management.

The number of incurable lunatics having within the last few years increased so much, that they could not be provided for in the Irrenthurm the extensive asylum at Ybbs has been erected. This is beautifully situated on the Danube, about two days’ journey from Vienna, to- wards Upper Austria, and it has accommodation for from three hundred and thirty to three hundred and sixty patients. To this, the surplus of the quiet, but incurable insane, are sent yearly from the Irrenthurm. It is, I understand, tolerably well conducted, and its delightful and healthy situation must, no doubt, contribute much to the comfort, if not the health of its residents ; that it has the latter power, we learn from the fact, that upwards of five per cent, permanently recover, of those who had been for years before confined in the tower and were pronounced incurable.  

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