Disability History Month Poster 6: Helen Keller, writer and activist

Born into a confederate family in northern Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a result of childhood illness at the age of nineteen months. In March 1887 when she was six years old, Helen met Anne Mansfield Sullivan, fourteen years her senior and with impaired vision herself, who would become her teacher and life-long companion. Anne Sullivan taught Helen manual sign language and oversaw her schooling.  Keller described in her childhood autobiography, The Story of My Life, a breakthrough moment when the “living word awakened my soul” and showed her that “barriers […] could in time be swept away”, as she connected the manual signs for w-a-t-e-r that Sullivan traced on one of her hands as she poured cold water on the other.  Keller became the first deaf-blind person to attain a BA degree, when she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College, Harvard in 1904.

What is notable is how Keller’s career-long campaigning and advocacy work for the rights of people with disabilities formed part of a suite of causes and beliefs that she championed.  Keller was also a suffragist and a socialist, a pacifist and a supporter of contraceptive rights (and eugenics). She became an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. In the sphere of disability rights, she helped to build the American Foundation for the Blind in 1924, and wrote and campaigned extensively, travelling to 35 countries across 5 continents in the period 1946-1957 alone. Keller herself recognised the inextricability of the causes she espoused: “For the first time [when appointed to a commission to investigate the conditions of blind people] I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness [an allusion to syphilis contracted through sex work]. […] It seemed as if I had been asleep and waked to a new world.”

Keller was an international celebrity figure; she met all the US presidents of her lifetime from Grover Cleveland on and counted international politicians, world-famous actors, and public figures as friends, from Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell to Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and died four years later.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December.  

Disability History Month Poster 5: Childbirth and Mental Illness, Past and Present

Mental illness following childbirth has a long history, and our understanding has changed according to social circumstances and dominant medical frameworks, as has the way in which postpartum mental illness has fitted into our lives.

In the nineteenth-century, the term ‘puerperal insanity’ dominated descriptions of mental illness associated with childbirth in medical literature, but a lay understanding and accepted discourse also existed within families and communities. A body of ideas about postpartum mental illness was built on a collaboration of medical knowledge, acquired through interactions with doctors, and ‘homespun’ ideas and understandings. Women were supported by their families, who interacted with doctors and were consulted in the treatments given, making them active consumers of healthcare.  Families were often able to maintain an effective level of patient care, but sought help when women’s behaviour became unmanageable, dangerous or public.  Once admitted to an asylum, postpartum patients often responded well to a regime of rest and nourishment – Isabella, pictured on the poster, a blacksmith’s wife who lived in St Andrews, was admitted to Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum in March 1903 but was discharged, recovered, after only two months.  In criminal cases, there was often considerable sympathy for women who were seen as suffering from ‘puerperal insanity’ and not responsible for their actions.

Today it is estimated that postpartum depression affects around ten to fifteen women to every hundred births and postpartum psychosis occurs in about one in one thousand women who have a baby in the United Kingdom, while some estimates suggest that one in five childbearing women are affected by some form of postpartum mental disorder worldwide.  These figures are likely to be underestimates. The last few years have seen a growing interest in these conditions, but postpartum mental disorders remain underrepresented, misunderstood and shrouded in stigma.  Examining the experiences of women and their families in the past contributes to the ongoing conversation about mental illness and parenthood in the present.

This poster is based on the research of, and was written by, Morag Allan Campbell, a PhD student in the School of History.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December.

Further reading: 

Brockington, Ian. The Psychoses of Menstruation and Childbearing. Cambridge University Press, 2017

Campbell, Morag Allan. ‘‘Noisy, Restless and Incoherent’: Puerperal Insanity at Dundee Lunatic Asylum.’ History of Psychiatry 28, no. 1 (2017/03/01 2016): 44- 57.

Cossins, Annie. Female Criminality: Infanticide, Moral Panics and the Female Body. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 

Kilday, Anne-Marie. A History of Infanticide in Britain, C. 1600 to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 

Marland, Hilary. Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830- 1980. Penguin Books, 1987.

Disability History Month Poster 4: ‘Prisoner-patients’: criminalising intellectual disorders in Victorian Scotland

Prisons have a much higher proportion of men and women with mental disorders than the general population. This was also true in Victorian times, when ‘the liability of the criminal classes to an excess of insanity is very great, and much beyond that of the free population of the country’. The Prisons (Scotland) Act (1844) defined ‘criminal lunatics’ as ‘insane persons charged with serious offences’. From 1846 Perth Prison provided specialist housing for those deemed not responsible on account of their insanity and in 1865 established a separate Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD). The then resident surgeon J. Bruce Thomson called inmates ‘prisoner-patients’ or ‘state lunatics’. The Perth CLD predated both Broadmoor in England (1863) and Dundrum in Ireland (1850) and remained the only such facility in Scotland until 1948.

Offenders were admitted to the CLD not for the crime committed, but for the threat presented by their insanity. One such ‘prisoner-patient’ was John McFadyen. McFadyen was convicted of the murder of a two-year-old boy named Alexander Shields in Glasgow in 1861, whom he had killed in order to steal his clothes, and was transferred to Perth from Broadmoor in 1872.  Aged 20 at the time he committed the murder, doctors judged John to have a mental age of six.  At the reformatory institution where he spent the years prior to the murder, the chaplain-superintendent described McFadyen as “mentally, morally and physically stunted or underdeveloped”: he could not write and could scarcely read and do arithmetic. He was barely 4 feet 9 inches (1.5m) tall and weighed seven stone (45kg). A cell mate described him as “a very childish companion. Very mischievious, taking away anything that was left, singing all day, constant talking, jumping on the bed occasionally, singing snatches of songs. […] I do not think he understood his position.”

Victorians classed intellectual disabilities such as that exhibited by McFadyen as either ‘imbecility’ or ‘idiocy’. These terms had both legal and medical meanings: ‘imbecility’, the diagnosis given to John McFadyen, was used to indicate less extensive incapacity than ‘idiocy’. John McFadyen was unconditionally discharged from Perth in 1891, aged 50.

The case of John McFadyen, and other ‘prisoner-patients’, demonstrate how societal understandings of intellectual disorders, and mental health more broadly, have been – and continue to be – conditioned and shaped by contemporary medical science, laws and the penal system, welfare structures and ideals, and philosophical and political conceptions of individual rights.

This poster is based on the research of Professor Rab Houston in the School of History.  For more information, including podcasts on mental health in historical perspective, please visit: https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/psychhist/

Postgraduate Spotlight: Chelsea Reutcke

Chelsea is a final year PhD student in Reformation Studies. In this blog she shares what draws her to studying ‘overlooked figures in history’.

Raised in Cincinnati and Chicago on a steady diet of Agatha Christie and history documentaries, Chelsea dreamed of someday living in the UK. Her love for mysteries extended beyond the realm of fiction, and from age twelve she became fixated on figuring out and understanding the past. After deciding that forensic anthropology required too many biology classes, she fixed her sights on history. 

During her undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, she was drawn to overlooked figures in history as well as those whose stories had been overwritten by a popular narrative. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the ‘afterlives’ of Anne Boleyn in Protestant and Catholic polemics. This in turn led to a fascination with the under-recognized Catholic priest and vitriolic writer, Nicholas Sander, and his scandalous history of the English Reformation. This became the subject of her 2014 MLitt dissertation, undertaken at St Andrews under the supervision of Dr Jacqueline Rose. When Chelsea returned to St Andrews for her PhD in 2016, she found the perfect continuation of this work in a thesis on the production and circulation of Catholic books in England. 

Chelsea is now in the final year of her doctoral studies on Catholic texts in Restoration England, again under the supervision of Dr Rose. As in her earlier studies, the themes of hidden figures and mysterious queens (in this case, Catherine of Braganza) feature heavily in her work. She continues to focus on historical networks and lived experiences, particularly of the obscure printers and booksellers in London who produced Catholic books. Her favourite is a Catholic bookseller by the name of Matthew Turner. Despite selling over a hundred different titles and being described by contemporaries as ‘that notorious popish bookseller’, little is known about Turner compared to many of his Protestant counterparts, making every detail about him an exciting discovery.

Chelsea loves bringing new life to a topic deemed uninfluential in the wider historiography and giving agency to a group usually discussed in terms of outside fear through her research. Even in the final stretch, her love for her topic has not wavered, and the many avenues for further investigation it yields has already resulted in two upcoming publications: one on the private interests of the enforcers of the 1662 Licensing Act, and the other on the patronage networks surrounding Catherine of Braganza. 

Meanwhile, she’s exploring new approaches to history and public outreach through her participation in the Bibliography for British and Irish History and the ongoing ‘St Andrews 1559’ project by Open Virtual Worlds, supervised by Dr Bess Rhodes. This year, the project produced a digital reconstruction of Holy Trinity parish church, of which Chelsea’s favourite detail is the little set up steps on the side of the main entrance.

Now living her childhood dream, Chelsea tries to take advantage of all the amazing opportunities offered by life in Scotland. She has danced in a Regency ball, shot arrows in a medieval castle, and even travelled to Stockholm on a cheap flight to see a live podcast about murder. Her bookshelves continue to be filled with history texts and murder mysteries, and she looks forward to the day those books will feature her name. 

Project: Esperanto & Internationalism, c. 1880s-1930

Blog written by Dr Bernhard Struck. Dr Struck is a Reader in Modern European History and founding director of of the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History at St Andrews. His research interests include the history of Germany, Poland and France in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, transnational and comparative history, the history of travel and cartography, and now Esperanto.

Ču vi parolas Esperanton aŭ vi estas muglo? Do you speak Esperanto or are you a muggler? (AKA a non Esperanto-speaker) Esperanto is an easy language to learn. Its grammatical rules are simple and few—in fact, there are only sixteen in total! It can be learned in 30 minutes (seriously, compare that to Czech or Russian). The vocabulary is built on a blend of Romance and Germanic languages (mainly), some Slavic and a logical structure of Latin-based suffices and affixes. Linguists say the effort to learn and converse in Esperanto is about 1/5 compared to French. So why not learn Esperanto?

The Aberdeen Esperanto Society, 1919
Part of University of St Andrews Special Collections

That question may have been on the mind of some 40 Esperantists that we see in a photo taken in Craibstone near Aberdeen in 1919. We do not know much about these 40 individuals, yet the photo is a microscopic lens into the fascinating and multi-faceted Esperanto world in the early twentieth century and into a new interdisciplinary and collaborative project “Esperanto and Internationalism, c.1880-1930”.

The Esperanto society in Aberdeen was founded in October 1904 at a time when clubs mushroomed across Europe: in Dundee, Montrose (and elsewhere in Scotland), in Pardubice, Kutné Hoře, and Prague in Bohemia, in Saxony, in Warsaw and western Tsarist Russia, in Finland, Catalonia, in the English Midlands, and rural Bavaria, as well as in the US, in China and Japan. The movement bridged generations, it brought together women and men, it attracted Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Free Thinkers. It attracted teachers, scientists, engineers, doctors, and later on workers and civil servants.

The language was created by the Polish-Jewish doctor, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917). He grew up in Bialystok (today’s Poland) in Tsarist Russia. In the 1870s in Bialystok, with a large Jewish population, he would have heard Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew along with another handful of languages and dialects. As a young medical student in Warsaw the young Zamenhof witnessed the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1882/83 that raged across the region. It was against this backdrop of rising ethno-nationalist tensions, at a time of globalisation, internationalism, and nationalism, that Zamenhof published his first two Esperanto manuals, Unua Libro and Dua Libro in 1887/88, first in Russian, and swiftly translated into other languages. With Esperanto, Zamenhof and his many followers hoped (Esperanto translates as “the one who hopes”) to give the world a neutral, non-national communication ground for a better, peaceful future of mankind.

The photo of the Esperanto group from Aberdeen provides the backdrop to the research questions for our new project hosted in the School of History and at the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History (ITSH): How did the movement spread? Who learned the language? How was Esperanto lived and organised at a local, regional, and transnational level? How did Esperantists live and communicate in Esperantoland a far-reaching, organised, yet non-territorial language community as teachers, engineers, and doctors, as Scots, Bohemians, Germans, Fins, and French? Were they internationalist, affiliated with other international organisation and attending the Universal Esperanto Congresses, or were they rather local-internationalists who did not attend congresses, but preferred to exchange postcards in Esperanto between Dundee, Bohemia, India, and Oslo?

The Esperanto project group. From left to right: Marcel Koschek, Manuela Burghelea, Pilar Requejo De Lamo, and Dr Bernhard Struck

Currently, the projects brings together four researchers with distinct, yet interrelated topics. Marcel Koschek joined us in September 2019 with degrees in History and Political & Social Sciences from the University of Würzburg and Bonn. He is working a PhD project “Local Internationalists. Polish and Central European Esperantist Networks between the local, national and global, 1880-1920s”. The projects aims to showcase how Polish Esperantists interacted in different spheres and examines their personal backgrounds, professions and interest.

Pilar Requejo De Lamo came to St Andrews in 2018 for an MLitt in Intellectual History and with a degree in International Relations from King Juan Carlos University in Madrid. Her PhD is entitled “Early Esperanto Communities in Spain: Tensions between Local, Regional and National Organisations”. The aim of this PhD is to bring into discussion the development of the artificial language in 20th-century Spain, and particularly in Catalonia.

Manuela Burghelea joined the Esperanto-Project at St Andrews as a continuation of her Master research on Esperanto between universal ideals and local cultural practices. She holds a joint MA degree in Intercultural Mediation (Lille) and a Bachelor degree in Philology (Bucureşti). Manuela conducted European volunteer work in Esperanto associations in France and in the Netherlands and is currently administrating the online citizen media translation community Global Voices Esperanto. Her project is entitled “Wandering Language: Senses of Place and Belonging among Esperanto Millenials”. In a socioanthropological and historical perspective, the project analyses motivations, aspirations, and agendas of young Esperanto speakers in current day Rio de Janeiro.

Working on a monograph on Modern Europe. A Transnational History, 1760s-2000s (Bloomsbury) Bernhard Struck started reading around the Esperanto movement and fell in love (academically). Taking an explicit local and regional starting point, his own research focuses on Scotland, the Midlands, Saxony, and Bohemia in the early twentieth century. Beyond the transregional focus around these four Esperanto regions, his current interests revolve around Esperanto experts as ‘epistemic communities’ by looking at doctors, architects, city planners in the Esperanto movement.

QGIS map of all international congress visitors across Europe 1904-1913.
Photo courtesy of the Esperanto project

While research on Esperanto exists, the movement as such has never been studied as what it truly was: a cross-border, translocal, transregional, and, in fact, global community. While all of our projects follow discrete questions and local and national particularities, they follow an explicit transnational perspective: a spatial and scalar perspective that starts from the local and individual and builds outwards to the regional, national, and transnational. The project builds on a complex linguistic and far-spread archival base from local and private archives, to city archives, museums, and national archives. It has a spatial and Digital History component by data mining of sources and visualisation of local memberships, journal publications, and international congress participation.

We would like to thank a number of sponsors of the project: the University of St Andrews, the German Academic Exchange Service, (DAAD) the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the CEDIES (Luxembourg), ESF (Esperantic Studies Foundation).

Disability History Month Poster 3: Benjamin Lay

Benjamin Lay (January 26, 1682 – February 8, 1759) was a Quaker and an early campaigner for the abolition of slavery.  He was born in Essex, England and died in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, having followed a variety of professions including sailor and glovemaker. He achieved notoriety through his outspoken life-long protests against the enslavement of Africans. He spent most of his life in Philadelphia writing against slavery, haranguing Quaker slave-owners and attempting to get them to recognize the error of their ways.

The son of an Essex yeoman of modest means, Lay first encountered slavery when he and his wife spent two years between 1718 and 1720 living in Barbados. It was this experience that planted a deep hatred of slavery in Lay and, following his emigration to Pennsylvania in 1732, prompted his determination to speak out against it. In Philadelphia Lay kept up his opposition by a variety of means. He persuaded Benjamin Franklin to publish his anti-slavery book,  All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (1737). He also engaged in what might best be described as ‘guerrilla theatre’. Lay’s stunts included kidnapping the child of a Quaker slaveowner so that his co-religionist might understand what it was like as a parent to lose offspring to the slave trade. By placing a sheep’s bladder filled with pokeberry juice in a Bible, Lay also seemed to make it bleed when he stabbed it with a sword during a speech against slavery at a Quaker meeting in Burlington, New Jersey.

Lay stood at a little over four feet tall and, as his portrait shows, had a hunched-back and a protruding chest. His wife, Sarah, was also a person of short stature. His disability, along with his outspoken opposition to slavery, made him a curiosity in his time. He rejected mainstream society as much as it shunned him, and he spent the final third of his life living in a cave, making his own clothes, maintaining a vegetarian diet, and boycotting consumption of anything produced by slave labour. As Marcus Rediker has underlined with his recent biography, Lay was ‘a radical for our time’.

Suggestions for further reading: 

Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist (Verso, 2017)

Richard Vaux, Memoirs of the lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford, two of the earliest public advocates for the emancipation of the enslaved Africans(Philadelphia, 1815)

Lydia Maria Francis Child, Memoir of Benjamin Lay, Compiled from Various Sources (New York, 1842)

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December

Disability History Month Poster 2: Will Sommers


Disabled History can be found at the centre of Renaissance court life in the form of natural court fools, neurodiverse individuals who acted as entertainers and companions to royalty. Will Sommers (d.1560 Somer, Somers), one of the most famous fools of the Renaissance, was King’s Fool to Henry VIII. The importance of Sommers to Henry is demonstrated by his presence in the king’s private psalter which he commissioned French artist Jean Mallard to create between 1540-41. On folio 63v we see a realistic miniature that portrays the Psalm 52 passage: Dixit insipiens in corde suonon est Deus or The Fool Hath Said in His Heart, There is No God. Fool miniatures for this Psalm had traditionally not taken inspiration from real and natural court fools – this image, therefore, is a good example of the subversive nature of Henry’s psalter. Here, and throughout, Henry depicts himself as King David, comments in the margins and creates a book both signifying his faith and his power over England’s spiritual affairs. Henry’s choice to have Will portrayed here is another act of revolt against typical psalters in its depiction of a real fool. 

This was not the only image of Will produced:  the 1545 The Family of Henry VIII portrait used Will’s image for dynastic purposes. By contrast, in the psalter he is depicted, stooped back and all, mirroring the ageing king.  This image is not just artistically accomplished, but intimate as Will is inserted into Henry’s devotional practice: between ruminating over his Christianity and reading his psalms the King can see the face of his beloved fool.  This bond between King and Fool was remembered as late as 1608 when Robert Armin’s Foole Upon Fool related of Sommers,  “few men were more belou’d, then was this foole, whose merry prate kept with the King much rule” and through jokes, riddle and rhymes the king and fool would exile “sadnesse many a time”. The psalter’s depiction of the two men evokes one of these back and forth exchanges.  Will remained appreciated beyond Henry’s lifetime and through the reigns of his three children. Payments to Will’s keepers (like modern carers) continued, he participated in Edward VI’s Christmas 1551 festivities, was purchased a green silk coat by Queen Mary between 1554-1555 and attended Elizabeth’s coronation. He passed away on June 15th 1560 and was laid to rest at St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. Sommer’s immortalisation in everything from the psalter to literature and portraiture would ensure his legacy as one of history’s most important court fools and neurodiverse people.

This poster is based on the research of, and was written by, Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart, a PhD student in the School of History.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December

Further reading:

D.J. Gifford, “Iconographical Notes towards a Definition of the Medieval Fool”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,37 (1974) 336-342.

Patrick McDonagh, Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

John Southworth, Fools and Jesters at the English Court (The History Press Ltd., New Ed. 2003)

James Gairdner and R H Brodie eds. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 20 Part 2, August-December 1545, (London, 1907) 488-504. British History Online, < http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol20/no2/pp488-504

Enid Welsford, The Fool (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935).

William Willeford, The Fool and his Sceptre (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).