On Thursday 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day, Big Ideas facilitated a Foundation Stones workshop with Bethlem Museum of the Mind for their networks including the Museum itself, the Bethlem Gallery, and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, on which the museum and gallery are situated.

Bethlem Museum of the Mind records the lives and experience and celebrates the achievements of people with mental health problems. The museum cares for a collection of archives, art and historic objects which support the history of mental healthcare and treatment.

It is estimated that 250,000 severely mentally and physically disabled people, as well as those perceived to have disabilities, were murdered by the Nazis.

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Bethlem Museum of the Mind told the stories of three people who were persecuted by the Nazis.

Refugee Psychiatrists

David Luck who is archivist at Bethlem Museum of the Mind shared the stories of three Jewish members of staff who fled their countries to escape the Nazi Party and came to the Maudsley Hospital during the 1930s.

He spoke about the impact that they have had on psychiatry in Britain – their legacy and contribution. He reflected on the great achievements of these individuals who were able to flee and realise their potential and also paid tribute to all those who did not manage to escape.

“These three lives, and Annie’s story in particular, makes me think of all the people who were not able to realise their potential, potential, like in Annie’s case that it seems she didn’t even realise she had…”

Below are some excerpts from his presentation.

Willy Mayer-Gross
Photo courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Wilhelm (Willy) Mayer-Gross was a well-established and well-regarded German psychiatrist who fled when the Nazi Party took control of his Germany in 1933.

He was given a research post at the Maudsley under Edward Mapother, who worked to arrange his transport from Germany. This special research was a project funded by the Maudsley as a way to get Jewish psychiatrists out of Germany. During the Second World War Mayer-Gross went on to run Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, and later co-created the definitive textbook of post-war psychiatry, Clinical Psychiatry. In doing so he bought British psychiatry into line with advances that had been made in Europe at that time. He went on to work in teaching at universities in Germany, France and Britain in the 1950s.

Willy was a breath of fresh air and helped to bring British psychiatry kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

Eliot Slater, who worked with Willy at the Maudsley and co-wrote Clinical Psychiatry, later said- “he came to us with a whole world of subtle clinical observations to instruct us in, and taught us above all to talk to our patients in an attempt at getting an understanding of the way their minds were working”.

Eric Guttmann
Photo courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Eric Guttman came to the Maudsley in 1933, as part of the same arrangement as Willy Mayer-Gross. He quickly became one of the main figures in the Maudsley, despite being briefly interned during the war, and became responsible for the teaching of psychiatric students in the 1940s.

If he did not achieve the status of Mayer-Gross in British psychiatry (partly through his own failing health after the War) he left a real impression on the students and junior doctors he worked with for his understanding and wisdom. Talking about him some years later one recalled: “he was brilliant, clinical, worldly wise and sophisticated… his ability to describe a patient, the personality, symptoms and behaviour [is something] I have always tried to follow”.

Perhaps his lasting legacy is his interest in the artwork of the mentally ill. In alliance with Walter Maclay he began a collection of artwork which went on to form the basis of the art collection in the Museum. This includes work that he and Maclay commissioned from artists under the influence of mescaline. While Guttman collected the art for scientific reasons, it is probably fair to say that much of it would not now exist without his efforts.

Annie Altschul

In contrast to Eric and Willy, Annie was a mathematics student when she came to London after fleeing Austria in 1939 with her family, and not an established name in psychiatry. After helping her mother with nursing in Ealing, Annie began a career in psychiatric nursing at the Maudsley’s wartime hospital at Mill Hill.

She went on to become one of the most influential voices in psychiatric nursing, teaching at the Maudsley when it returned to Denmark Hill and writing many books on the subject.

Photo courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

These pictures are her teaching at Breakspeare House, a sort of residential teaching school, in the grounds of the Maudsley Hospital. She went on to become Professor and Chair of Nursing at Edinburgh University, and on her retirement was made emeritus professor to recognise her contribution to the field of psychiatric nursing. Her obituary recorded that she believed that psychiatric nurses selected themselves, and always fought for the underdog, which the writer felt was always true for Annie.

She also battled depression herself, and wrote a moving chapter in Wounded Healers, a book where medical professionals recorded their own mental health issues.

“I have nursed patients suffering from all types of depressive illnesses. I have genuinely listened and have talked to many patients. I have written about depression and talked to student nurses about it. Yet it is frightening to me… that I did not recognise my own depressive illness.”

She described herself in the book as a ‘senior nursing tutor’, and she was one of the few people to put her name to her piece, seeking to help others with her example.

These three extraordinary people lived fulfilling lives in helping and enriching others – in their care, or through their teaching – and left a legacy to psychiatric care and to the Museum. Had they remained in Germany and Austria they would not have had these chances, as so many others did not.