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William A.F. Browne on Music, Health and Wellbeing

30 November 2023

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William A.F. Browne, who was Medical Superintendent at the Crichton between 1838 and 1857, wrote extensively about his practice and his views about appropriate treatments for psychiatry. Many of these ideas became influential through his publications, lectures and personal contacts.

The Annual Reports of the Crichton Institution include another passage which offers a different perspective on the impact of music. Here, Browne reflects on the different ways in which musical events or amusements lead to patients developing self-control. Browne describes the various facets of the ‘control’ effected through amusements before, during, and after the amusement takes place:

‘In order to obtain these gratifications, in anticipation of them, and from the conviction that propriety of demeanor will alone entitle to indulgence, the insane exercise control over their minds; secondly, during enjoyment they control their minds, or rather their minds are controlled, as they become engrossed, as the happiness of others spreads to them, and as the memory of the past is shut out by the agreeable feelings of the present; and thirdly, they control their minds under the fear of compromising their right and expectation of a repetition of the indulgence. This power of control, or of concealment of predominating and morbid feelings in an indication of health, a beneficial exercise of the will, which may be trained, strengthened, and established.’

Third Annual Report, 11 November 1842, p. 17

In his annual reports for the Crichton, Browne also includes anecdotes about patients who appeared to be cured or improved due to their musical experiences. In 1841, for example, he recorded

‘One young lady is at present curing herself of extravagant ideas of her own greatness by copying, and then playing music, at which she is an adept.’

Second Annual Report, 11 November 1842, p. 20

The 1843 report includes the narrative of a woman who was persuaded to attend a party, and while there was no evidence of her responding to the music at the time, she awoke the next morning having

‘passed suddenly from weakness to strength, from drivelling imbecility to clear, cogent intelligence, from disease to health’.

Fourth Annual Report, 11th November 1843, p. 26

Similarly, a woman patient attending a concert in 1844 reported an ‘immediate effect, partly of her reunion with her own species, partly of melodies to which she was familiar in other times’ leading to a ‘revival of a taste for music’.

Fifth Annual Report, 11 November 1844, p. 24

In a later example, dating from 1848, Browne recorded

‘Music has been re-acquired by a man who had previously sunk into the condition of a partial imbecile, an animal, and a glutton. It had been an innocent passion and pastime, and became a mighty engine of cure.’

Ninth Annual Report, 11 November 1848, p. 32

In other writings, Browne recognised that music was not a magical remedy for either physical or mental ill-health. Nevertheless, his belief about its ability to influence was strong enough to justify establishing a rich musical life in the early years of the Crichton.

Written by Jessica Campbell

Image source: Annual Reports of the Crichton Royal Institution 1839-1857

The exhibition is produced in collaboration with The Open University, and with the support of the National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange. Additional posts are contributed by members of the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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