Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Psychiatry’s saint

How a girl from Ireland became the guardian of the mentally ill and their physicians

As anyone with even a passing interest in medical history will recall, those with mental illness have suffered some of the cruellest “treatments” ever doled out. From ancient Incan trepanation techniques that let “evil spirits” escape the skull and the burning of countless witches in North America and Europe from the 15th to 17th centuries, to the hellish asylums of Victorian England and the electroconvulsive therapies and lobotomies carried out by enthusiastic psychiatrists during the 20th century, a badly behaving brain was the last thing anyone wanted.


Science or sin?

Spiritual matters played a huge role in the perception and treatment of the mentally ill — something which, quite frankly, continues to this day in some parts of the world, despite the advent of modern medicine and the emergence of psychiatry as a discipline all its own. The disturbing nature and symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and even senility lead some to question whether or not evil forces might be at play. After all, how could a few misfiring neurons cause such complete incapacitation?

The only way to make sense of it was to look to the guiding force that both Western and Eastern societies believed shaped humans’ existence: religion. Ultimately, however, the solution was not a good one. Public perception of patients’ complicity was reinforced by spiritual beliefs, and the mentally ill suffered prejudice and pain.

Nowhere is the uneasy relationship between religion and science more evident than in the unique case of Saint Dymphna, the Catholic patron saint of those afflicted with mental and nervous disorders. So how exactly does one become the patroness of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, epileptic and mentally ill? The troubled life of Dymphna herself led her down a difficult path to the dubious distinction bestowed upon her after her death.


One sad saint

Dymphna was born into seventh-century Ireland’s version of a mixed marriage: her mother was a practising Christian, while her father, Damon, was a powerful and wealthy pagan chief of Clogher, a small village in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Dymphna’s mother, who was renowned for her breathtaking beauty, died suddenly when her daughter was only 14, setting into motion an unfortunate chain of events.

Damon, being the unenlightened sort that he was, immediately set about trying to find an equally beautiful replacement for his first wife, demanding that her successor also be of noble birth. He sent emissaries far and wide, hoping to entice a lovely young woman to return and be his bride. Alas, it was not to be, and Damon was left unhappily single. Even worse, when someone pointed out that Dymphna was just as pleasing to the eye as her mother had been, the grief-stricken chieftain decided that his daughter might actually make a nice substitute.

Understandably, young Dymphna was not so sure. But Damon was not a man easily scorned, and he pursued his daughter with a ferocity that led her to fear not only for her innocence, but her life as well. Having inherited her mother’s devotion to Christianity, Dymphna confided in her priest, Gerebernus, who recognized the seriousness of the situation. Along with two other accomplices, Gerebernus helped Dymphna escape and flee the country.


Belgian retreat

The group made it as far as Belgium where they set up a new life as beneficent hermits in the town of Geel, near Antwerp. Once there, Dymphna dedicated herself to the care of the impoverished and sick. According to some accounts, she even established a hospice using the money she squirreled away before her departure. The mentally ill, in particular, found refuge in her kindness, and it wasn’t long before Dymphna developed a reputation for her charity. Unfortunately, her good deeds were not to go unpunished.

Her father’s spies had been tracking the group all the while by following the trail of Irish gold coins that Dymphna had used to bankroll her escape. When Damon heard what was going on, he travelled to Belgium to set things right. He had Gerebernus decapitated on sight — a martyrdom for which the old priest would later be canonized — and once again proclaimed his romantic love for his daughter and begged her to return to Ireland as his wife. Dymphna remained understandably unconvinced, and her chastity and piety were rewarded with a swift beheading by her father’s sword. The year was 620.

Word of her sacrifice spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before people began making pilgrimages to Geel to visit the place where the Christian girl laid down her life. Indeed, a church quickly sprung up on the site of her execution, perhaps as a way for the saddened townspeople to pay tribute to the young woman they felt they’d failed to protect.


Miracle in Geel

Soon stories abounded of miraculous remissions from long lives of madness, and Geel grew into an unlikely centre for the insane. For centuries it remained a beacon of hope for some of Europe’s most unfortunate. Hence, it seemed only logical for an infirmary to open there in the 13th century. By then, the Catholic church regarded Dymphna as a martyr and a saint. By the 17th century, a full asylum had developed.

Geel appealed to the mentally ill, in part, because of the treatment offered there. Instead of being abused, chained and left to languish in prison-like conditions, sufferers were assessed and then released to local families and farmers. By living and working in the community, the mentally ill were afforded the chance to become productive members of society. That, of course, is the true miracle at Geel — the understanding that inclusion can effect far more impressive a cure than isolation. The progressive Geel sanatorium, renamed the Openbaar Psychiatrisch Zorgcentrum, remains open to this day and has served as a model for countless others over the centuries.


Body of evidence

In the 13th century, Dymphna’s body — along with that of her devoted protector Gerebernus — was believed to have been found, hidden in a cave in the woods in a marble sarcophagus. Her coffin was transported into the church named in her honour, while the bones of Gerebernus were transferred to Xanten, Germany. Though the church was destroyed by fire in 1489, it was soon rebuilt and there her sarcophagus remains to this very day. It continues to attract pilgrims wishing to pay their respect or, as the legend goes, hoping to be cured.

Dymphna was canonized in the Catholic tradition as the patron saint of the mentally ill, the epileptic, sufferers of nervous system disorders, incest victims, runaways and mental-health physicians. Interestingly enough, Dymphna is also regarded as the patroness of family harmony... a far cry from the life she lived.

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