“Personally, I have lost a true friend” – the First World War and Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum

People returned from the Front and they were changed. The aftermath of the First World War and its effect on those who fought is well researched, though less well known is how hospitals for people suffering from mental illness changed and adapted throughout its duration. In Aberdeen, what was then known as the Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum – now Royal Cornhill Hospital – records through their annual reports the effect the war had on its administration, its staff and of course its patients.

When war broke out in 1914, the annual report for that year notes that “as yet, the present War cannot be ascribed as a contributory cause of mental disorder in the private or pauper patients from the County of Aberdeen. Among members of the community, however, there is no doubt it has accentuated any existing highly strung tendency, and produced in some a self-centred, apprehensive, depressed, fanciful, sleepless, and fatigued conditions akin to neurasthenia or nervous debility.” It’s clear from this that while the war itself wasn’t as yet directly affecting people, there was underlying concern in some patients who were admitted to the hospital.

The hospital continued to admit those from County of Aberdeen throughout – patients from Aberdeen City were admitted to Kingseat Hospital at Newmachar – but was also instructed to take patients from other asylums from across Scotland as required. The 1915 report expresses some frustration, however, as though preparations were made for extra patients they didn’t always appear. When Edinburgh District Asylum at Bangour was requisitioned as a military hospital, accommodation had to be found for its patients and it was agreed that 40 would be transferred to Aberdeen. Only 25 are recorded as having arrived by the end of 1915, and of the 16 patients from Renfewshire District Asylum at Dykebar who were meant to be transferred, none had taken place by the end of the year.

By the end of 1915, the Medical Superintendent stated that “the war cannot be said to have yet had any remarkable influence on the number of admissions. Through mental anxiety and worry, there are 5 female and 2 male patients on whom it can be stated that it acted as an exciting cause, but all these cases had an evident inherent unstable mental condition. Five young men who had temporarily joined the Army were admitted. In four of these, the accountable cause was the adolescent period combined with a hereditary predisposition, and it could not be said that their disorder was due to enlistment. In the fifth case, the exciting cause was alcohol. None of these had seen active service.”GRHB 2 Aberdeen Asylum Annual Report 1916

By 1917, it was clear that the hospital had not received the number of patients it was expecting. The medical report notes that “excellent arrangements have been provided in war hospitals for the reception of mental and nervous cases from the front. It is, however, only when patients of the former type manifest symptoms of a protracted nature that they are transferred to the asylum to which they are entitled to be sent. It is surprising that only four such patients have been admitted into this Asylum. On enquiring into their individual histories, it was found that there had been a natural instability, which, in ordinary circumstances, would in all likelihood, sooner or later, have led to a breakdown in mental health.”

It wasn’t only patients the war had an effect on – the staff were too. In 1914, the report notes that “of the fifteen attendants who left of their own accord, ten joined patriotically the Territorial Army. It has to be reported, with regret, that two died. They had been in the service of the Institution for several years, and discharged their duties faithfully and well.”

Another member of staff who left in order to take up military duties was the Senior Medical Assistant, Arthur Kellas. A graduate of the University of Aberdeen, he had worked at the Royal Aberdeen Hospital for Sick Children before attaining a postgraduate diploma in psychiatry from the University of Edinburgh. He was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force from 1902 and by 1912 had been promoted to Captain. When war broke out, he went to the Dardanelles in Turkey with the 1st Highland Field Ambulance, where he was killed in action at Gallipoli on 6th August 1915. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet while making inspections prior to the battle of Cape Helles. News of his death reached Aberdeen, and was mentioned in both the Chairman’s report and the Medical Superintendent’s report. The Chairman said “it was with profound sorrow that the Directors heard of the death at the Dardanelles, on 6th August last, of Dr Arthur Kellas, the Senior Medical Assistant, who had been in the service of the Asylum for eight years. He was held in the highest esteem by the Board and his colleagues alike, and his personal charm made him a general favourite with everybody, not least with the patients. The Board record here their deep sorrow at his death, and their sincere sympathy with his mother and other relatives.”

Dr William Reid, the Medical Superintendent makes personal reference to the news, recording that “the intimation that Dr Arthur Kellas had been killed at the Dardanelles on the 6th of August came as a great shock. He had been eight years in the service of the Asylum, and was beloved by the patients and held in the highest respect by the members of the staff. His superior intellectual acquirements, combined with his sympathetic nature, thoroughness, and general resolute character, made him an ideal member of the branch of the profession in which he was so keenly interested. Personally, I have lost a true friend.”

Dr Reid died on 3rd September 1918 following a long and distinguished career in Aberdeen. As a result, there is little in the annual report for 1918 regarding the end of the war and how this changed the running of the hospital. What is clear from the reports, is that while there was upheaval regarding the admission of patients from elsewhere, Aberdeen did not see large numbers of servicemen or civilians being admitted as a direct result of the war. The loss of Dr Arthur Kellas was keenly felt by his colleagues, and no doubt his patients, and the reports give an insight into how events taking place far away from Aberdeen had an effect on those on at home.

The story of Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum during World War One is only a small part of the North East of Scotland’s history at that time. Over the course of November, more information on how other hospitals in the North East dealt with not only the lack of staff, but also an increase in patients, will be published as part of the centenary of the end of the war on 11th November 1918.

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