Marking Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 with Mental Health Pioneer Dr Helen Boyle

Today’s Pioneering Women of Sussex blog marks Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, with Dr Helen Boyle, Mental Health Pioneer and Hove’s first woman GP.

Alice Helen Anne Boyle, by Lafayette, 6 September 1927, NPGx42237

There are a number of houses and flats tucked away on Brighton and Hove streets that, unbeknown to their inhabitants and passers-by, played an incredibly important role in the history of mental health care in Britain.  For this we have to thank Irish-born doctor Helen Boyle (1869 – 1957), who arrived in the city in 1897 with ideas about improving the health – both physical and mental – of mainly poor women, which were revolutionary for her day.

Dr Boyle studied at the London School of Medicine for Women and completed her Doctor of Medicine degree in Brussels in 1893.  She moved to Hove with Scottish Doctor Mabel Jones in 1897, and together they opened up a practice on New Church Road becoming Hove’s first female GPs. 

A couple of years later both doctors became involved with the landmark Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children, a pioneering institution on Islingword Road, financed by charitable donations, which in pre-NHS times when medical care came at a cost, offered free or cheap services to the poor women and children of what was then Brighton’s poorest neighbourhood.  The Dispensary, whose building still exists on the corner where Islingword Road meets Elm Grove, must have been a life-saver, offering women the chance to see a female doctor at a convenient time without having to obtain a letter of admission.  Both doctors offered their services for free. 

A photograph indicating where Dr Helen Boyle’s first hospital at Roundhill Crescent in 1905 was located.

By 1905 Dr Boyle’s contribution to the Dispensary was lessening. This was because she was busy creating her own hospital at nearby 101 Roundhill Terrace, a terraced house just behind today’s Lewes Road Sainsbury’s.  This small hospital was unique, a true first in the country, catering for poor women who were suffering from nervous exhaustion and early onset ‘nervous diseases’. 

Earlier in her career Dr Boyle had worked at the large Claybury Lunatic Asylum in Essex, as well as at the Canning Town Mission Hospital where she’d specialised in neurological problems and had lots of opportunity to see how issues such as poverty, slum living, repeated childbirths and high infant mortality took a toll on women’s mental health.  Unlike their more moneyed sisters, poor women could not deal with life’s hard knocks by taking to their beds for a few days or travelling to warmer climes for a ‘rest cure’. They would attempt to cope – or not – with what we’d call depression and anxiety today until they ended up certified or in the ‘lunatic asylum’, possibly separated from their children, with their family and working life at an end. 

At Claybury Asylum, Dr Boyle worked with the Welsh psychiatrist, Robert Armstrong-Jones, an early pioneer of community care who believed that if services were provided early enough through an outpatient system, the symptoms of poor mental health could be attended to before it was too late.  Addressing the symptoms of poor mental health early was exactly what Dr Boyle was attempting to do in the small house in Roundhill Terrace.  First simply named ‘Lewes Road Hospital’ the admission book, today kept at the East Sussex Records Office at The Keep in Brighton, records the names and circumstances of patients.  There were cooks, laundresses, embroideresses, charwomen, missionaries, box-makers, shopgirls, servants, a tester in a gas light factory from Leeds, a worker from a pickle factory in Vauxhall, and an Anglican sister. 

The annual reports describe individual cases: – ‘B, aged 24, was sent from St Thomas Hospital.  She had been obliged to give up work for over a year, having broken down partly as a result of the long hours as a laundry packer, varying from 12 to 13 hours a day.  Her family history was not good, and showed traces of alcoholism.  On arrival she was thin, pale, and poorly developed with slight curvature of the spine and had nervous symptoms, she had already lost heart and considered herself of no further use in the world.’  A aged 43 from Derby sent by Dr Helen Greene.  Suffering from nervous breakdown after a severe shock.  Among other symptoms she was liable to hysterical attacks of fear and trembling…’   

The treatment Dr Boyle offered to her patients wasn’t just bed rest.  The women were encouraged to have physical exercise, to help with cooking and household chores, and engage with art and poetry.  These are things that we all know are part of our mental wellbeing today but at the start of the twentieth century were new ideas.  Soon patients were being referred to the small house in Brighton from all over Britain.  In 1912, now named the Lady Chichester Hospital for Nervous Diseases of Women and Children, it moved to larger premises at 70 Brunswick Place, Hove where the proximity of the sea offered wider facilities for patients to exercise and swim. 

In 1920 even larger premises were found in Aldrington House on New Church Road, with the Brighton and Hove Gazette proudly announcing ‘Hove should be very proud of possessing the one hospital in the whole of England where a sick brain is treated as any other disorder of the human organism.’   By now, Dr Boyle’s pioneering ideas of treating mental health issues early were becoming mainstream.  When the Royal Sussex Hospital decided to establish a department of early mental diseases, Dr Boyle was offered a senior post, leading to her being the first female doctor employed by that hospital in 1931.  The Lady Chichester Hospital continued until 1988 and today is a day centre.  In 2015 a blue plaque was erected there for Dr Boyle.  

Dr Helen Boyle died in 1957, aged 88.  She had lived for almost thirty years in Poynings.  Her obituary in The Times described her founding of the Lady Chichester Hospital as ‘outstanding public service.’   Her other achievements included being President of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, as well as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and being awarded the Serbian order of St Sava by the King of Serbia for her service in that country during the First World War.  Dr Lamorna Hingston, a protegee of Dr Boyle, and herself a later Consultant Psychiatrist at the Royal Sussex paints a more human figure of this giant of doctors ‘She was determined, fearless, had bad eye sight and was always frail.  Far into middle age she started her day with a run on the seafront. … ‘When well into her 80s she was still ready for a day walking on the Sussex Downs with a friend and a packet of sandwiches for lunch.’ 

It’s staggering and quite humbling to think about what Dr Boyle achieved in these small, unsung houses in Brighton and Hove.  It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that she revolutionised how we look at mental health, made it possible for us to obtain help sooner, and working hard, selflessly and for most of the time unpaid, changed our country’s health. 

Written by social historian, Louise Peskett

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