Oliver Sacks 1933 - 2015 / by Geoff Harrison

In his essay for the book "Asylum - Inside The Closed World of State Mental Hospitals" by Christopher Payne, acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of the original concept of asylum as refuge, protection and sanctuary.  The Oxford English Dictionary describes asylum as "a benevolent institution affording shelter and support to some class of the afflicted, the unfortunate or destitute."

Sacks writes of one called Anna Agnew who was judged insane in 1878 after several suicide attempts and her attempt to kill one of her children.  She felt profound relief when the institution closed protectively around her and having her madness recognised.

"Before I had been an inmate of the asylum a week, I felt a greater degree of contentment than I had felt for a year previous.  Not that I was reconciled to life, but because my unhappy condition of mind was understood, and I was treated accordingly...."  Anna Agnew

The decline and eventual closure of institutions for the insane is well documented, not to mention the catastrophic consequences for many of the former inmates.  But beyond all this, Sacks reminds us of the immeasurably deep sadness of mental illness, a sadness reflected in the often grandiose but melancholy architecture of the hospitals that once housed the mad.