Treating Mental Illness During the Regency – Rotation Therapy



The Treatments That Put the “Mad” in “Mad Doctor”

by Louisa Cornell

Many of the treatments used for mental illness during the Regency were heinous forms of torture perpetrated on people too vulnerable to protest. The believed causes of mental illness ranged from ill humors – imbalances in the blood – to congestion of the brain to masturbation. It is no surprise the so-called cures and treatments based on these assumptions were equally… punitive and fantastical. One such method was inspired by the work of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin. Known as rotation therapy, there were two main methods of implementing this supposedly therapeutic procedure.

  1. An ordinary chair, suspended from the ceiling, with ropes attached to the legs. The ropes were used to spin the chair until it was set in motion.


2. A pole fixed from the floor to the ceiling by iron rods. It had a horizontal arm        attached, which was used to hang a chair or bed and to spin the patient.


Psychiatric Treatments

The basis for Erasmus Darwin’s theories about this treatment? He observed children spinning themselves to induce vertigo and the resulting laughter as the children grew dizzy and fell down struck him as a helpful state to induce in the mentally ill. The fact the children did this to themselves voluntarily and only to the point they grew slightly dizzy and fell down appears to have eluded the great man.

The patients were spun in a circular motion until they promised to obey the doctors and get better. (Who wouldn’t?) Once the promise was made, the patient was released and allowed time to sleep and recover. (Not to mention vomit and change his trousers.) Rather like being forced to ride the tilt-a-whirl non-stop until one promised not to be mentally ill any longer. As expected once the shock wore off the patient was still mentally ill, necessitating a repeat of the procedure.

Known side effects of the treatment included :

Bowel Movement

“Positive” Results (according to the doctors)

The powerful shock to the disposition subdued even the most refractory of patients. Further results were tiredness, and a deep sleep, which often lasted for many hours.

I daresay many patients were “cured” simply at the sight of these spinning torture chambers. More on this subject in future posts. Wait until you hear how some “mad” doctors persuaded women unwilling to sleep with their husbands to crawl back into bed. It does not involve dinner and a nice bottle of wine!

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