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Pioneering psychiatrist Dr John Conolly celebrated at exhibition on the history of mental healthcare

19 May 2016

The life and career of Dr John Conolly, pioneering psychiatrist at Middlesex County Asylum at Hanwell (now called St Bernard’s Hospital), was celebrated at a talk on the history of psychiatric care as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.

Dr John Conolly

Dr John Conolly, resident physician at the hospital from 1839, was one of the first people in the field of psychiatry to regard an asylum as a hospital with patients to be treated, rather than inmates to be restrained. Kevin Towers, head of mental health law & clinical records at St Bernard’s Hospital, delivered a talk at Gunnersbury Park Museum about Dr Conolly’s pioneering career, the history of what was once the largest psychiatric hospital in Europe, and what life is like today for patients and staff.

The talk explored Conolly’s phenomenal impact on attitudes towards mental health. He was responsible for the revolutionary practice of removing mechanical restraints in an era before psychotropic medications were available.

Kevin then discussed what mental healthcare is like in the 21st century, including how services are now organized and delivered, what a typical week on a ward is like, and how care and treatments have changed. He also explained the most appropriate language to describe mental disorders today.

Finally the talk looked at some of the hospital’s famous visitors, which include the late Princess Diana, Elton John and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. The session finished with a number of references to the hospital in literature and its use in TV and films including ‘Porridge’, ‘The Professionals’ and the 1989 ‘Batman’ film, which starred Jack Nicholson.

Kevin Towers said: “I was delighted to have had the opportunity to deliver this talk on the remarkable Dr John Conolly. He has had an extraordinary influence on how we deliver mental healthcare, and it’s important to preserve his legacy.

Kevin Towers

Kevin Towers

“The session was extremely well-received, and will be delivered on a larger scale at St Bernard’s Hospital later this year.”

Gunnersbury Park Museum will be setting up a permanent John Conolly exhibition from 2017.