Edmond Halley Complains about the Clouds

Sometime in late 1676 Edmund Halley left Oxford and set sail for St. Helena, an island in the south Pacific. There he hoped to accomplish two projects. First, he wanted to compile a catalog the stars in the southern sky, which would complement John Flamsteed’s catalog of norther stars. Second, Halley wanted to observe the transit of Mercury, which would occur the following year, so that he could calculate the distance between the earth and the sun. Thanks to the support of King Charles II, who wrote a letter to the East India Company asking them to take Halley to St. Helena, Halley sailed south and arrived on St. Helena around March, 1677. He set up his instruments and spent the rest of the year observing the heavens, cataloging 341 stars in the process. In 1678 shortly after he returned to England, he published his star catalog, Catalogus stellar australium.

A letter Halley wrote in late November 1677 while still on St. Helena is fascinating for what it suggests about his time on the island and the personal conflicts that threatened his reputation. He found life on the island pleasant and boasted that the “air was so agreeable to English bodies” that scarcely anybody could get sick. Far from being uninhabitable, as the ancients had supposed islands in the torrid zone would be, he found the climate more pleasing than England’s. He did, however, complain about the frequent cloud cover that prevented him from carrying out his observations. Although he doesn’t mention it in this letter, just a couple weeks earlier he was lucky enough to have clear skies when he observed the transit of Mercury. Halley also complained about the Deputy Governor, a Mr. Beall. The two did not seem to get along. According to Halley, Mr. Beall was “the most Malicious person” he had met and had “abused [him] in the basest manner imaginable.” Mr. Beall disparaged Halley to commanders and other people on the island. Here is a full transcription.[1]

A letter written by Edmund Halley on November 21, 1677, to a correspondent in England. Halley praised the weather, bemoaned the frequent cloud cover, and complained about the abuse heaped on him by the Deputy Governor. From the “Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection,” Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, call #215. See the finding aid.
A letter written by Edmund Halley on November 21, 1677, to a correspondent in England. Halley praised the weather, bemoaned the frequent cloud cover, and complained about the abuse heaped on him by the Deputy Governor. From the “Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection,” Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, call #215. See the finding aid.

St Helena November 21, 1677
Dear Sr
The honour you have done me, in taking notice of that acquaintance, which the community of our studies contracted, when I might well have been forgotten, through ye long absense I suffered from you, together with that extraordinary favour I [received] from you, by the [letter] you were pleased to send me in the Downs, makes me believe that the newes of my welfare will not be unacceptable to you; these therefore may informe you that ever since my departure, I have enjoyed my health, as well or rather better than in England, both on the sea, and in the Island, the air whereof is so agreeable to English bodies, that the greatest intemperance will scarce make a man sick, so that of near upon three hundred people that are on the Island, there hath been but one died of any distemper in the eight month time that I have been here; The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not inhabitabilis estu but even under the line the heat doth not exceed temperature; and had I the company and accommodations here that England affords, I should prefer a habitation here where neither heat nor cold infest us, I can find no fault with the Island, but only that it is not favourable to my purpose for we are almost continually covered with clouds, which hinder us from the sight of the starrs, sometimes for six weeks togather, so that I am almost persuaded, I must returne without the full accomplishment of my intents, [which] will be the greatest trouble to me, that can possibly happen, by reason I shall give the world cause to judg hardly, and censure me for failing in a thing I had undertaken, but to all those that know me, I have the confidence to think, that it will not be attributed either to want of skill or endeavour that I am so unfortunate; In the mean time I doubt not but your Mathematicall Studies make a better progress, under the Conduct of Mr Colson, who I believe will make good the Character I gave you of him; and I hope I shall find you well advanced in Algebra by my return which will be as I suppose in Aprill, for I have not the least encouragement to stay here, being quite in despair of weather for my purpose, and being troubled by one Beall ye Deputy Governour who is the most Malicious person I ever conversed with, and who has abused me in the basest manner Imaginable, and disparages me to all the commanders that come here, making them believe that I conceale my inabilitie, to perform my business, under pretence that the clouds hinder me, which aspersion may gain credit with those who know me not, and do me some injurie among his friends: I pray remember my respects to your friends whom you made me known to viz: Mr Boles and Mr Donne whom you may certifie of my welfare: So wishing you all health and happiness I remain
Sr Your ever assured friend & [servant]
Edm: Halley

At one point Halley seems to paraphrase book one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on the origin of the earth. There Ovid says the torrid zone is not inhabitable because of the excessive heat, “Quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu.” Halley rephrases it, saying “The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not _inhabitabilis estu_….” It is unclear whether or not Halley knew this quotation directly from Ovid or if he knew of it through some other text, e.g., Sacrobosco’s De sphaera. By the 13th century Sacrobosco’s text included these lines from Ovid. The quotation became a standard feature of Sacrobosco’s text in the print tradition. See, for example, the late 15th-century edition printed in Venice or the late 16th-century edition also printed in Venice.

A late 16th-century edition of Sacrobosco’s De sphaera quotes Ovid on the uninhabitability of the torrid zone. Sacrobosco De sphaera (Venice, 1586), 38.
A late 16th-century edition of Sacrobosco’s De sphaera quotes Ovid on the uninhabitability of the torrid zone. Sacrobosco De sphaera (Venice, 1586), 38.

Whatever Halley’s source, it seems odd that in the late 17th century anybody still bothered to mention the ancient worry that the torrid zone was uninhabitable.


  1. This letter is in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, it is part of a large collection of autographed letters. It was the subject of a short post a few years back: Edmond Halley letter streaks across our imagination.  ↩

The Curious History of Phyllis on Aristotle

The cover story on the latest edition of Distillations, the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s excellent magazine, traces the history of truth serums and related efforts to compel people to tell a truth they might want to keep secret. The section on hypnosis, “the first modern method for coaxing out buried truths,” includes these images.

Two examples of hypnotists at work in Distillations article, “Stranger than Fiction.” The top image is described as “A mesmerist at work in the advertising poster.” The bottom Virgil Finlay’s cover art from the July 1954 issue of Fate, the “special hypnotism issue.”
Two examples of hypnotists at work in Distillations article, “Stranger than Fiction.” The top image is described as “A mesmerist at work in the advertising poster.” The bottom Virgil Finlay’s cover art from the July 1954 issue of Fate, the “special hypnotism issue.”

The top image is lithograph poster from ca. 1900. It shows a hypnotist doing what hypnotists did best: making people behave in strange and unusual ways. Among the strange behaviors the one that jumps out as most remarkable is the centuries old visual trope of a young woman riding an old man. This is clearly an example of Phyllis on Aristotle.

The story of Phyllis on Aristotle dates back to the 13th century in German and French versions, but is much better known from John Herold’s Latin version from the 14th century.[1] Herold was a Dominican who compiled a number of exempla that could be used in sermons. According to this version, Aristotle had warned his student, Alexander the Great, to avoid intimate affairs with his wife, Phyllis. Alexander should, instead, concentrate on philosophy. Phyllis was understandably upset that her husband was shunning her and particularly angry at Aristotle for encouraging him to do so. To exact revenge, Phyllis started flirting with the old philosopher until finally seducing him and humiliating him by riding him like a horse while Alexander hid and watched. The story is short and worth reading:

Once upon a time, Aristotle taught Alexander that he should restrain himself from frequently approaching his wife, who was very beautiful, lest he should impede his spirit from seeking the general good. Alexander acquiesced to him. The queen, when she perceived this and was upset, began to draw Aristotle to love her. Many times she crossed paths with him alone, with bare feet and disheveled hair, so that she might entice him.

At last, being enticed, he began to solicit her carnally. She says,

“This I will certainly not do, unless I see a sign of love, lest you be testing me. Therefore, come to my chamber crawling on hand and foot, in order to carry me like a horse. Then I’ll know that you aren’t deluding me.”

When he had consented to that condition, she secretly told the matter to Alexander, who lying in wait apprehended him carrying the queen. When Alexander wished to kill Aristotle, in order to excuse himself, Aristotle says,

“If thus it happened to me, an old man most wise, that I was deceived by a woman, you can see that I taught you well, that it could happen to you, a young man.”

Hearing that, the king spared him, and made progress in Aristotle’s teachings.[2]

The point of this exemplum seems to have been to warn men of the threatening power of women. If even the wise and most learned Aristotle could be reduced to a rude animal by lust and the wiles of a woman, how much more would lesser men suffer. Initially the story probably reinforced other exempla that illustrated similar ideas, e.g., Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah.

This early 16th-century drawing of Phyllis Riding Aristotle by Master M.Z. (ca. 1500) depicts a clothed Phyllis riding Aristotle in a walled garden while Alexander (?) watches (original at the Art Institute of Chicago).
This early 16th-century drawing of Phyllis Riding Aristotle by Master M.Z. (ca. 1500) depicts a clothed Phyllis riding Aristotle in a walled garden while Alexander (?) watches (original at the Art Institute of Chicago).

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries fear of powerful women and their ability to overturn accepted social and cultural norms breathed new life and significance into the story. At the same time a market for mass produced images was emerging throughout Europe.[3] Artists quickly adapted the story and produced countless drawings, woodcuts, engravings, and paintings of Phyllis on Aristotle, making it one of the most common and recognizable visual expressions of the power of women topos. These images reinforced a constellation of anxieties and fears that also contributed to witchcraft accusations and persecutions across Europe.

Hans Baldung Grien’s early drawing from 1503 depicted a clothed Phyllis holding a riding crop and reigns sitting on Aristotle. In this drawing he set the scene somewhere outside of town. (See the original Phyllis and Aristotle by Hans Baldung Grien (1503) at the Louvre).
Hans Baldung Grien’s early drawing from 1503 depicted a clothed Phyllis holding a riding crop and reigns sitting on Aristotle. In this drawing he set the scene somewhere outside of town. (See the original Phyllis and Aristotle by Hans Baldung Grien (1503) at the Louvre).

In the early part of the century German artists seemed to corner the market on Phyllis riding Aristotle. In 1530 Lucas Cranach the Elder painted a colorful version of the story, showing an opulently dressed but otherwise somewhat restrained Phyllis riding Aristotle somewhere out in the country. Unlike most of these depictions, Cranach’s Phyllis is not holding a riding crop or a set of reigns, grasping instead Aristotle’s beard.

In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s version of Phyllis and Aristotle from 1530, Phyllis doesn’t have a riding crop or reigns, but holds tightly on to Aristotle’s beard. This copy sold recently at Sotheby’s for $4Mil.
In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s version of Phyllis and Aristotle from 1530, Phyllis doesn’t have a riding crop or reigns, but holds tightly on to Aristotle’s beard. This copy sold recently at Sotheby’s for $4Mil.

Subduing Aristotle was, apparently, not sufficiently degrading (or perhaps titillating). Soon artists were depicting Phyllis naked. In 1513 Hans Baldung Grien produced another version of the story, this time a woodcut showing a naked Phyllis holding in one hand a riding whip suggestively behind Aristotle and in the other the reigns that were attached to the bit in the philosopher’s mouth. In this version Phyllis rides Aristotle around inside a walled garden.

In this version Hans Baldung Grien depicts Phyllis naked, dominating Aristotle with a whip and reigns.
In this version Hans Baldung Grien depicts Phyllis naked, dominating Aristotle with a whip and reigns.

By the middle of the century a naked Phyllis was common, still brandishing a riding crop and holding the reigns, the bit firmly in Aristotle’s mouth.

Johannes Sadeler’s engraving from the mid- to late-16th century reflects the standard visual vocabulary that had come to represent the story of Phyllis riding Aristotle. Source: Phyllis and Aristotle by Johannes Sadeler, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (53.601.10(25)) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/652755
Johannes Sadeler’s engraving from the mid- to late-16th century reflects the standard visual vocabulary that had come to represent the story of Phyllis riding Aristotle. Source: Phyllis and Aristotle by Johannes Sadeler, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (53.601.10(25))
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/652755.

In the context of profound social and cultural changes of the 16th and early 17th centuries, and not least the problem of witchcraft, we can see these images as expressions of male anxiety and fear. But they enjoyed a curious history that seems to have outlived their obvious relevance. Three hundred years later the story of Phyllis on Aristotle enjoyed a revival of sorts.

Throughout the 19th century the tradition of Phyllis on Aristotle resurfaces in a number of diverse places. In the earliest years of the century, Père Enfantin included a brief description of a kind of parlor game where one penalty required a young man to get down on hands and knees and to walk around the circle of players carrying a young woman on his back. Each man she passed kissed her.[4]

Père Enfantin described an odd parlor game that repurposed the Phyllis on Aristotle topos from 500 years earlier. This illustration from his book shows a young woman riding around on a man and being kissed by another player. A PDF copy of this book is available from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek MDZ portal: Le Petit Savant de Société, vol. 4 (Paris, [1800]).
Père Enfantin described an odd parlor game that repurposed the Phyllis on Aristotle topos from 500 years earlier. This illustration from his book shows a young woman riding around on a man and being kissed by another player. A PDF copy of this book is available from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek MDZ portal: Le Petit Savant de Société, vol. 4 (Paris, [1800]).

Towards the end of the century, the French playwright Pierre Wolff wrote a play titled Le Cheval d’Aristote. And then, bringing us back to where we started, at the end of the century the story of Phyllis on Aristotle found a place in the hypnotism movements in the U.S.

These two posters were produced by the Donaldson Lithography Co. They were generic—in the empty space at the top performers or theaters would have printed the details about the performance, e.g., the hypnotist’s name, the date, and probably the location of the show. Both posters depict a young woman holding a riding crop and reigns. The originals are at the Library of Congress: poster on the left and poster on the right.
These two posters were produced by the Donaldson Lithography Co. They were generic—in the empty space at the top performers or theaters would have printed the details about the performance, e.g., the hypnotist’s name, the date, and probably the location of the show. Both posters depict a young woman holding a riding crop and reigns. The originals are at the Library of Congress: poster on the left and poster on the right.

Around the turn of the 20th century the Donaldson Lithography Company produced a set of posters that hypnotists or theaters could use to advertise their shows.[5] The hypnotist dressed in his fine suit stood to one side and made people do all sorts of extraordinary things. Two of these posters use the Phyllis on Aristotle story to reflect the powers of the hypnotist to invert or overturn social and cultural norms. In one the young woman has subdued an older man. In the other, the young woman rides a man who bucks in an effort to throw her off.[6]

We can easily explain the enduring relevance of the Phyllis on Aristotle motif as just the perennial male anxiety about powerful women. There is, no doubt, considerable truth to that explanation, but it doesn’t help us understand why this particular story of women upending society and more specifically this particular visual trope remained popular. Whatever the reason, the ever youthful and attractive Phyllis was still riding around on Aristotle more than 400 years after overcoming the old philosopher.

Oskar Kokoschka’s 1913 version of Phyllis on Aristotle depicts Phyllis with riding crop and reigns riding Aristotle around inside some room while three figures watch. “Aristoteles und Phyllis at the L.A. County Museum of Art.
Oskar Kokoschka’s 1913 version of Phyllis on Aristotle depicts Phyllis with riding crop and reigns riding Aristotle around inside some room while three figures watch. “Aristoteles und Phyllis at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

  1. The grandfather of the history of science, George Sarton, wrote a useful history of early versions of this story in 1930: “Aristotle and Phyllis” Isis 14(1930): 8–19. Sarton’s article is a useful introduction to this history and fun to read as an artifact from the history of the history of science. He doesn’t shy away from injecting his own opinion throughout the article, e.g., when discussing the various names used to refer to the young woman he says: “I … shall always call the damsel PHYLLIS, if only to help drive out the other name [Campaspe], which is not half as nice.”  ↩

  2. The Latin and english are found here. For those interested, here is the Latin:

    Aristotles, cum doceret Alexandrum ut se contineret ab accessu frequenti uxoris suae, quae erat pulcra valde, ne animum suum a communi providentia impediret, et Alexander ei acquiesceret, hoc advertens regina et dolens, coepit Aristotelem trahere ad amorem suum, quia multociens sola transibat cum pedibus nudis et dissoluto crine, ut eum alliceret.

    Tandem allectus coepit eam sollicitare carnaliter, quae ait,

    “Hoc omnino non faciam, nisi videro signa amoris, ne me tentes: ergo veni ad meam cameram, reptando manibus et pedibus, sicut equus me portando, tunc scio quod non illudes mihi.”

    Cui conditioni cum consensisset, illa intimavit hoc Alexandro; qui expectans apprehendit eum reginam portantem. Quem cum vellet occidere, ait Aristoteles sic se excusando,

    “Si sic accidit seni sapientissimo, ut a muliere deciperar, potes videre quod bene docueram te, quid accidere potest tibi juveni.”

    Quod audiens rex, ei perpercit, et in doctrina eius profecit.  ↩

  3. Mass produced in the 16th century didn’t look anything like mass produced in 20th. Nevertheless, through printing artists and printers produced images that could be sold to and collected by larger audiences than ever before. Throughout the 16th century the market for printed images continued to grow.  ↩

  4. Listed as the first of the “Pénitences désagréables” is “Le cheval d’Aristote:”

    Le cavalier qui est condamné à remplir cette pénitence, est obligé de se mettre à quatre patte parterre et il promène autour du cercle, et dans cette attitude, une dame désignée par la société.
    Cette dame, assise sur son dos, est embrassée par tous les cavaliers devant lesquels elle passe.

    Père Enfantin, Le Petit savant de société, ouvrage dédié à la jeunesse des deux sexes, contenant la manière de jouer tous les jeux innocens dont on s’amuse en société, et les pénitences qui s’y ordonnent, avec la manière de s’y conformer en les exécutant vol. 4 (Paris, [1810]), 23  ↩

  5. The top of the posters were left blank so that the performer or the venue could print the performer’s name and details of the show, such as the hypnotist’s name, date and time of the show, and location.  ↩

  6. I note that in both images a sign of the hypnotist’s power to upend social norms is to make men play brooms as if musical instruments. I get that playing a broom as if a musical instrument is silly, but I don’t understand how it inverts typical social norms the way a woman riding a man or the two men kissing (or even the policeman brandishing a sausage rather than a nightstick) invert traditional values. I would love to know why the broom as musical instrument was meaningful.  ↩

The Use and Abuse of Kuhn’s “Paradigm Shift”

A half century ago Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to describe the way that science lurches unpredictably forward. The terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” quickly escaped the narrow confines of history and philosophy of science and are today rarely used to describe scientific change. Instead, they are bandied about to explain nearly any change, from economics and politics to sustainable public transportation and sanitation. There’s even a YouTube channel, Paradigm Shift that offers “leadership training.”[1] So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it applied to transgender: “A Lifetime of Anomalies Explained by a New Transgender Paradigm.”[2] This latest invocation of Kuhn’s celebrated phrase seems a rather tenuous application of the term.

According to Kuhn, paradigms are shared worldviews that structure the way science is done.[3] They typically function for a long time, but there’s no way to predict how long any paradigm will reign supreme. Now and then a sufficient number of anomalies are identified, which leads to the replacement of one paradigm by another, the “paradigm shift.”[4] A paradigm shift does not occur when one scientist realizes that s/he had misinterpreted evidence and then reinterprets it in a new way, to demonstrate something different. That, had Kuhn said anything about it, is simply a mistake.

So a person who has failed to recognize, ignored, or misinterpreted evidence, and then realizes that mistake and adjusts accordingly, is simply admitting an error and correcting it. No paradigm. No anomalies. No crisis. No shift.

It seems that Kuhn’s expression has drifted so far from his intended meaning that we should no longer attribute it to him. I get it. Saying “paradigm shift” sounds a lot better than “I was wrong,” so by all means let’s continue to use the term. But let’s not slander Kuhn in the process.[5]


  1. Even the “nu metal band” Korn has an album named “The Paradigm Shift.” As with more Korn music, it is an acquired taste.  ↩

  2. A quick internet search for “transgender paradigm shift” turns up loads of hits.  ↩

  3. Ok, “the way science is done” is shorthand for Kuhn’s longer discussion of normal science, puzzle solving, education of subsequent generations of scientists, recognition and identification of meaningful data, etc. For brevity, let’s just agree on “the way science is done.”  ↩

  4. Kuhn remains a bit fuzzy on the details here, e.g., What is an anomaly? How many anomalies? How significant? How long does it take? etc.  ↩

  5. Here’s the nitpicky footnote that points out some of the significant mistakes in the article:

    Copernicus found numerous anomalies that science really couldn’t explain: retrograde motion, the fact that the sun wasn’t really rising, (it just looked that way) and why no one ever bothered to give either Aristotle or Ptolemy a first last name. Copernicus had what Kuhn would call just over 400 years later a crisis. (It would have been 400 even, but Kuhn couldn’t define crisis without attaching several hundred more pages.)

    Copernicus did not find “numerous anomalies.” The major problems were the precession of the equinoxes and convoluted corrections necessary to bring calculations in line with the best observations of planetary positions. Neither the sun’s apparent motion nor a planet’s retrograde motion was an anomaly. Though I don’t understand why a first name matters, Ptolemy did have one: Claudius is how we typically write it in North America. Ok, Aristotle might not have had a first name, but really, who cares (perhaps this is an attempt at humor, but I don’t really get it)? And Kuhn’s book is, in total, a mere 200 pages.

    What Copernicus had found, however, threatened the religious status quo and the primacy of the Church, something that would have threatened him had he not died right as he finished his theory: On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. That honor fell to Galileo Galilea [sic] who came to the same conclusions as Copernicus. Galileo was fortunately healthy enough at the time that the Catholic Church threatened to kill him if he didn’t recant.

    I don’t even know where to begin here. So let’s move on.

    The damage to the geocentric theory of the universe, however, was done. Too many anomalies begat one big crisis, and – BOOM! – the heliocentric view of the solar system became the dominant paradigm by which people now understood the cosmos.

    And no. No one big crisis. No BOOM. Not immediately after Copernicus. Not immediately after Galileo. As Kuhn points out, paradigms don’t shift in an instant as a result of a single person’s observations. Instead the change happens over a period of time, often as generations change. Finally, after enough time, the people who hold the former paradigm simply die off. Less a BOOM and more a rattling, dry exhalation as the last believer expires.  ↩

And Millennials Didn’t Invent…

Along with the list of things things Alex Nicholson points out Millennials didn’t discover “My Gen X life has been Columbused by Millennials,” I would add MOOCs.[1] The core dream of using the latest technology to democratize education and broadcast the best college and university lectures to the underprivileged has been failing for nearly a century. See, e.g., Prof. Michael Pupin’s “Radio Universities.”

Professor Pupin’s MORU: Massively Open Radio University
Professor Pupin’s MORU: Massively Open Radio University

  1. We, thankfully, haven’t been hearing as much about MOOCs lately. Perhaps the post-lapsarian utopia they promised turned out to be more hype than real. That’s not to say some people in some demographics with some resources and with the benefit of previous education don’t learn something from taking largely self-directed on-line courses—sort of technologically enhanced versions of “[Subject-of-Choice] for Dummies”—but the promises of solving “education’s problems" and making the world a better place seem to have been overblown.  ↩

Death in the Archive

A paradox lurks at the center of any archive. One the one hand, archives strive to keep the past alive, or at least on life support long enough for somebody to revive a sliver of that past, which sliver has lain comatose on a shelf locked away in a vault. Yet, on the other hand, the past is dead. Any inquiry into history is “first and foremost an encounter with death.”[1] Sometimes that encounter with death is inescapable.

Shelved in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections is an archive from the Friends’ Asylum[2]. Volumes of records, daily accounts, physicians’ reports, admissions documents all created for the asylum and its administrators, not for modern historians. The disjunct between the asylum’s needs and intentions and ours is most pronounced, or at least most poignant, in cases of a patient’s death.

The entrance to Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections.
It’s easy to miss entrance to Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, with its humble sign taped above the door.

Let’s enter the archive and see what we find.[3]

The Bookkeeper’s Version

You would be forgiven for not noticing anything special about the patient at the bottom of the first page of the Asylum Register of Admissions and Discharges. The entry doesn’t attract your attention. The patient was just one of thousands admitted to the Friends’ Asylum in the nineteenth century, cataloged on the Asylum Register’s hundreds of columned pages that transform patients into manageable, comparable, analyzable data.

The first page from the Asylum Register from the Friends’ Asylum. Each page lists relevant patient information, including name, date of admission, patient number, duration, occupation, date of discharge, and result.
Entries in the Asylum Register from the Friends’ Asylum list various relevant details, including name, date of admission, patient number, duration, occupation, date of discharge, and result. This otherwise dry tabular information hides poignant stories of people now long dead. Patient 33 (at the bottom of the page) was the first patient to die in the asylum, after being there just over a week.

These tables offer a glimpse into the ways Friends’ Asylum was trying to understand and treat insanity. After the basic identifying information, name, date, patient number, we see a handful of more interesting categories—some seem familiar, others seem strange, and some categories are striking by their absence:

  • Age on Admission
  • Age at First Attack
  • Civil State
  • No. of Admission
  • Duration
  • Form
  • Supposed Cause
  • Occupation
  • Place of Residence
  • Place of Birth
  • Religious Profession
  • Date of Discharge
  • Result
  • Remarks

The early pages of the Asylum Register lack many details that are noted for later patients.[4] In these thousands of records you lose sight of the individual patient, each on a single row, and see instead columns of numbers. The aggregate becomes the meaningful scale. Even the “Result” column with its list of “Restored,” “M.I.” [Much Improved], “Imp” [Improved], “Status” [Status quo], and “D” [Died] is less the fate of any individual and more institutional bookkeeping that has reduced messy experience to digestible categories,[5] the bookkeeping required to run any institution and to assess its effectiveness.[6]

Any given patient disappears into this mass of information. Only with some effort do you notice things about the patient at the bottom of page one. You infer from her name, Jane, that she was a woman. She was admitted on September 26, 1818. Other columns reveal a bit more about her: she was the 33rd patient admitted to the asylum, was 26 years old, single, and from New Jersey. Like five other patients listed on this page, she died before she recovered. If you look a little more closely, two things seem to noteworthy: the duration of her attack had been only 6 days.[7] If you do the math, you realize that she was the first patient to die in the asylum, just 10 days after being admitted.[8]

The Superintendent’s Version

To learn more about Jane you have to turn to the Superintendent’s Daybook. Whereas the Asylum Register transforms patients into analyzable information, the daybook embeds those same patients into the quotidian management of the asylum. The superintendent was charged with recording significant events in the daily running of the institution so that his successors would have a record of how he had managed the asylum.[9] But what counted as significant was open to his interpretation and relative to his immediate concerns, and without any knowledge of what would be considered significant by future readers of the daybook. You read about plowing the fields or hauling in crops or trips to the city alongside comments about patient behavior and his conversations with physicians or visitors. In 1818 when Jane was admitted, the superintendent was Isaac Bonsall.

The superintendent’s daybook.
Superintendents were charged with recording the daily life at the asylum in large, bound volumes. Hundreds and hundreds of handwritten pages await the eager reader.

September 26, 1818, was much like any other day at the asylum. Bonsall noted that one employee had left to see his father-in-law in New Jersey. Another employee plowed his own fields. Pumpkins were sorted “and other things attended to.” Then,

in the afternoon Jane of Woodbury Monthly Meeting Gloucester County New Jersey aged 26 years Insane 6 Days was brought here and appeared in a violent state of Insanity—they produced no Documents—a physician was sent for who after examining signed the necessary certificate—as it was evening and dark it was concluded we must lodge & entertain the friends who brought her five Persons and 4 Horses—I obtained a Check for 13 Weeks board and a Bond signed by Edward and Edmond for future pay &c.—the Order for admission is to be obtained and furnished.

Bonsall’s entry for September 26, 1818, the day Jane was admitted.
Isaac Bonsall, the superintendent, noted in the daybook when Jane was admitted to the asylum. His entry reflects his concerns—forms and payment—as manager of the asylum.

There was little in Jane’s case to worry Bonsall, who dutifully recorded her admission, had the proper forms completed, and collected money for her stay.[10] Over the next few days Bonsall noted Jane’s condition along with other happenings at the asylum. At first Bonsall saw some improvement. On the 27th, he noted: “found considerable difficulty in getting the new patient to each in the morning but at dinner She did much better.” Jane had been so disruptive (violent ?) that Bonsall felt she should be restrained. The following day he noted:

our new Patient very similar to Wm [another patient] for getting out of her Straps & breaking them eat [sic] her Meals tolerably well but had to be kept confined—Prince S. brought Doctor Williamson a respectable coloured [sic] Man from the Island of St. Domingo to see the Asylum

Bonsall folded Jane’s behavior into the daily management of the institution. It was no more or less remarkable than the foreign visitor who came to see the asylum. Over the next couple days Bonsall recorded Jane’s decline within the framework of overseeing the asylum, the comings and goings of managers, physicians, employees, his trip to the city, the sowing of wheat and rye, and the hauling of manure.

Reading Bonsall’s daybook you begin to see Jane as one part of a larger asylum economy. As superintendent Bonsall had manage the running of the institution, entertain visitors, attend to financial issues, oversee labor, and monitor all the patients. His attention and time were finite. He had to allocate both as he judged necessary and within his domains of expertise. He was a manager, not physician.

On October 1st Bonsall was worried because an employee had to go into the city just when Bonsall needed him to help “sow several acres of our grain.” While most of the patients were well behaved, Jane was not doing well, so her “head was Shaved and a Blister applied.” The next day Bonsall was occupied with sowing, clearing fields, collecting manure, and hauling crops. He also had to spend time with the visiting managers. Jane did not merit a mention.

By October 4th, however, Bonsall was becoming increasingly concerned about Jane. Although he reported “her mind has become clear” and was “mostly rational,” he worried because she suffered “great bodily debility.” When the resident physician suggested that Bonsall send for a second, he did so at once. Jane was “quite ill—much attention was given to her.”

Bonsall’s entries for October 5th and 6th, the last two days of Jane’s life.
For two days Jane’s rapidly deteriorating condition consumed Bonsall and the general events at the asylum. He recorded in detail his and his wife’s attention to Jane.

Whatever else happened at the asylum on October 5th and 6th, Jane was the main focus of Bonsall’s attention and all he recorded in his daybook.

10th Mo: 5 second —
My Wife remained with Jane until near 2 O Clock A.M. when Ruth took her place and continued with Jane until day light after which different members of the family administered to her wants the Doctor being particularly attentive—in the course of the day She [Jane] told my Wife & Ruth She had two Mothers attending upon her and She told Ruth that She did more for her than many sisters would do for a sister—when I came towards her Bedside She said “this is a good friend I always loved good friends” She took hold of my hand and held it a considerable time toward evening my Wife enquired of her if She did not feel her mind more comfortable than She had done her reply was “Yes much more so” notwithstanding every means in our power to help her was rendered She continued to sink—my Wife and Ruth concluded to spend the ensuing Night as they had the preceding one in carefully watching her and supplying her wants—

The next morning Jane’s physical condition had worsened, though Bonsall remarked that her mental state seemed to remain improved, she “appeared to possess a quiet mind.” Then, “about half past 11 O Clock A.M. She very quietly departed this life.” Bonsall immediately sent a letter to her friends so that they could come to see her before the funeral the next day. Her brother and aunt came in time to pay their respects before the funeral, which took place in the afternoon of the 7th. “Jane’s brother and aunt appeared quite satisfied with our Conduct &c. relative to the deceased both before and after death.” With that final comment, Bonsall turned his attention back to the other aspects of running the asylum.

You finish reading Bonsall‘s daybook and now know more about Jane, at least more about her arrival, decline, and finally death from Bonsall’s perspective. You see him struggling to manage a growing institution filled with patients each of whom required particular attention. He had to oversee employees and ensure that the institution’s farm ran smoothly. He also had to manage the visiting managers. Bonsall’s understanding of Jane’s case was informed by the demands of his position. Reading his daybooks you sense his profound sadness at having lost a patient, but you also sense his confidence at having done what he could as well as his feeling of accomplishment at having restored her sanity before she died.

The Physician’s Version

Finally, you turn your attention to the physician’s medical register, looking for more information about Jane. Just as the superintendent was charged with keeping a daybook, during the early years the attending physician was charged with keeping a medical register in which he recorded his observations and treatments for each patient.[11] During Jane’s time at the asylum, Dr. Lukens was the attending physician. You leaf through the volume looking for Jane’s entry and find it on pages 204 and 205. Jane’s final 10 days rendered as a series of medical observations, physical symptoms, and prescriptions.

Dr. Lukens’ medical register records his observations and the treatments administered to Jane.
Dr. Lukens’ medical register in which he recorded his observations and the treatment he administered to Jane while she was in the asylum.

9 Mo 26 — …[Jane] Has been extremely violent was very much bruised &c. by the violence used to restrain her—she had made attempts to injure herself—she is now very violent and has to be confined to the bed—Pulse frequent and debilitated.

Lukens recast Jane once again. This time she became the object of his medical expertise and, therefore, a concatenation of symptoms and treatments. The next day she remained extremely violent. So Lukens prescribed medicines to calm her, but noted that they did not produce the desired result. He looked for related symptoms and found them:

28 — Bowels costive Rx Calomel gr. x Jalap gr. xij it did not operate in the evening—but she could not be prevailed to take any thing now—apetite [sic] very poor
29 — Rx Calomel gr. x Jalap 2j —it operated well—she is some better.
30 — Bowels lax—apetite [sic] very poor—a slight dawning of reason appears

When his prescriptions failed to work, he augmented them with other treatments, particularly ones intended to draw out harmful fluids:

10 Mo 1 — She sat up some has three cups on her temples—but was faint and weak—and the operation was ceased. Her head shaved and a blistering plaster applied over it—

Lukens carefully recorded Jane’s reactions to his treatment as well as her general condition, and adjusted his treatment as her condition changed. When she continued to have no appetite, he gave up the Calomel and prescribed camphor and a mixture of “wine-whey as much as she will take.” He tracked her pulse, which remained weak, and monitored her bowel movements, which remained infrequent. He noted that she was throwing up with some regularity and prescribed “Carbon: amonia” along with the wine-whey and a beef tea. He also applied a blister to each ankle. In the evening he noted that her pulse was stronger and that she appeared better.

The next morning he worried that the blisters had “produced a good deal of inflammation but not much discharge.” He changed her prescription again, adding “vol-alkali” along with the wine-whey mixture. He decided to apply another blister this time to her breast. Nothing seemed to help much.

6 — Much restlessness through the night, though she seemed to sleep some…towards morning she swallowed with very great difficulty, after seven oclock she could not swallow anything—and died about eleven.

For the physician, Jane was a series of medical puzzles to be solved. His clues were her symptoms. His guesses were his prescriptions and treatments. The physician’s perspective is the hardest to understand. You try to see Jane as Dr. Lukens did, but your modern ideas about insanity and health stand in the way. His treatments seem barbaric, horrific, even harmful. You have to resist the urge to blame him, the urge to shout: “You killed her.”

But your task isn’t to judge Dr. Lukens. Instead, when you entered the archive, you agreed to try to understand the past, to understand Dr. Lukens’ efforts for what they were, the best he could offer. There is a more generous and humane approach. Try to appreciate his constant monitoring, evaluating, and revising his treatment in light of Jane’s developing symptoms and their refusal to respond to treatments.

Archives are nested experiences. Sort of Matryoshka dolls, each nested account giving you another version of the story, each resembling the others but not identical. Unlike the Matryoshka doll, however, the center of the archive rarely contains some solid core, a single account that can be judged right or wrong. Instead, you end up with multiple versions from which you piece together a history, which unlike the past is not dead but rather vibrant and meaningful. And even the shortest histories are often humbling. Lukens’ frenetic search for medical solutions to help Jane, Bonsall’s sorrow at her death, the asylum’s careful recording of her case all point to an institution struggling to understand mental and physical illnesses. Our shock and horror at Jane’s 10 days in the Friends’ Asylum, her last 10 days, should remind us that future historians and physicians are likely to consider our current efforts equally barbaric. But it’s the best we can do.


  1. The French historian Arlette Farge used this expression to describe her experiences in the judicial archives in Paris. See A. Farge, The Lure of the Archives (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), 8.  ↩

  2. See Quakers & Mental Health to learn more about the Friends’ Asylum.  ↩

  3. Although I present this post as as if we are exploring in real time, like all histories, I have reconstructed this story, having pruned out my fumbling through the archives, having omitted the dead ends and repetitions, and having imposed a coherent story meaning on otherwise recalcitrant, meaningless detritus from the past.  ↩

  4. There are two copies of the Asylum Register, one seems to have been made from the other. Neither copy includes much information for the early patients.  ↩

  5. Except for this last category, “Died,” to understand these various categories requires looking beyond the Asylum Register. What behavior indicated “M.I.” or “Restored” is far from obvious. The diligent historian could probably recover those behaviors poses significant challenges, given  ↩

  6. I want to be clear: I am not accusing the Friends’ Asylum of anything. At one level, institutions have to look beyond the individual, particularly if they are interested in tracking and improving the effectiveness of their treatment.  ↩

  7. Whenever I’ve mentioned this case to physician acquaintances, they immediately offer a range of acute ailments to explain this short duration of insanity. Unfortunately, we will never know what ailment caused Jane’s insanity. And my point is not to say what really happened.  ↩

  8. This last information is not obvious, is not recorded in the tables, but requires you to compare Jane’s entry with others.  ↩

  9. The superintendent was, in this way, creating an archive, a sort of bureaucratic archive for his successors.  ↩

  10. The people bringing a patient were supposed to submit a form completed by a physician that attested to the patient’s condition, and to complete an admissions form, guaranteeing to pay for board and damages. Unfortunately, Jane’s forms are missing.  ↩

  11. The medical register is the physician’s archive, the medical analog to the superintendent’s daybook.  ↩