Charles Mercier and Montagu Lomax

H. Bryan Donkin – Charles Arthur Mercier M.D.Lond., F.R.C.P.Lond., F.R.C.S.Eng. B. 1852: D. 1919 The British Journal of Psychiatry Jan 1920, 66 (272) 1-10

When Lomax published his ‘Experiences of an Asylum Doctor’ in 19211, he was well aware that nothing he described was a revelation to the psychiatric establishment.  Prominent psychiatrists including  J.R.Lord, Lionel Weatherly and Charles Mercier had written books aimed at improving  the  appalling care of the insane poor within the British asylum system. Mercier’s  ‘Lunatic Asylums, their Organisation and Management2 predated Lomax’s book ‘Experiences of an Asylum Doctor’ by a quarter of a century, and as Lomax pointed out, nothing had changed much in the interim. If anything, the exigencies of the first world war had worsened the situation, with overcrowding and near-starvation rations resulting in a shocking death rate amongst the asylum inmates. Lomax quoted Mercier’s handbook of asylum management extensively in ‘Experiences’. He professed to hold Mercier in high regard, claiming that there  was no man for whose opinion he had greater respect 3. 

Charles Mercier was born in 1852. He was the son of an impecunious vicar, but managed to put himself through medical school where it became apparent that he was a high achiever. He won many prizes and accolades throughout his medical career, specialising in mental science. Mercier was a prolific author, and later served on several government committees and Royal Commissions. He championed the conditions of the asylum assistant medical officers and tried to use his considerable influence to improve their working lives. As a longstanding president of the MedicoPsychological Society (the forerunner of the Royal College of Psychiatrists), Mercier was a revered and respected alienist at the top of his profession by the time of the first world war.

There is  a comment in the introduction of Lomax’s ‘Experiences’ where Lomax asserted that he had ‘broken many a lance with him {Mercier} in controversial tourney in the medical papers’ 3. This is  an intriguing statement since it would have been highly unusual for an eminent psychiatrist of Mercier’s stature, to have engaged in public debate with a locum asylum medical officer. It needed a little investigation, but I found that it was true – Mercier and Lomax had indeed exchanged views through the pages of the Medical Press and Circular. This weekly medical journal was less formal than the British Medical Journal and the Lancet, and allowed discussions on topical matters. It might perhaps be viewed as an Edwardian version of modern day social media, where medical themes were tossed around for discussion and sometimes quite heated exchanges could be followed through its pages.

Lomax was a regular contributor to the medical papers during  the early part of the 20th century. The Medical Press and Circular carried a number of his letters on assorted topics including manipulative surgery; medical representation in Parliament, and prevention of venereal disease. It was a discussion on telepathy in October 1917 that brought him to the attention of Charles Mercier. Lomax, waded in to a dispute on telepathy between Charles Mercier and Oliver Lodge. Lomax wrote ‘I am only one of the “smallest fry” of the profession of which Dr Mercier is so great an ornament and cannot expect that he will condescend to “flesh” the tempered steel of his dialectic in any poor arguments that I may offer…………..Sir Lancelot would never have refused a challenge to combat with a sneer, and it is not worthy of Dr Mercier’s reputation’ 4. Lomax followed up his letter with a long article entitled ‘Telepathy, or Thought-Transference’ 5. Mercier had been appalled at the behaviour of spiritualists who claimed to contact the war dead on behalf of their relatives. In 1919, he would go on to write a satire – Spirit Experiences 6 – which mocked  the credulity shown by believers in spiritualism, telepathy and levitation. So he had little patience for Lomax’s mystical beliefs, and wrote to the editor of the Medical Press and Circular criticising Lomax’s ‘vile English’ and accusing Lomax of being a spiritualist. Lomax’s reply was published the following week, and defended his views on spiritualism. He ended his letter with the following comment: ‘I can suggest the manner in which his {Mercier’s} answer may have been given – I cannot provide him with manners’ 7. Clearly, Lomax was deeply offended by Mercier’s criticism of his carefully argued thesis on telepathy. 

In April 1919, while Lomax was still working at Prestwich Asylum, The Medical Press and Circular published Lomax’s critique of Mercier’s 1918 book, Crime and Criminals. Lomax made some astonishing statements in this article, which were not only derogatory but frankly rude. He warned readers of Mercier’s latest book to ‘ defer reading the preface until after they have read the book, otherwise they may be tempted to throw away the book in disgust’. According to Lomax, the book contained ‘blemishes of taste, which all readers of Dr Mercier’s work have unfortunately become familiarised’. Lomax noted that Mercier’s attitude towards the psychology of crime and human conduct was ‘eminently unscientific and unsound’ 8.  

Lomax wrote of having recieved a personal communication from Mercier following his review of Crime and Criminals, which he said he was not at liberty to publish, but Lomax then went on to outline the letter’s contents 9. Charles Mercier responded with a letter to the editor of the Medical Press and Circular saying that rules of ethics bind on every honourable man, and that Lomax had broken these by indirectly publishing the contents of his private letter without his permission 10. Lomax did have the good grace to apologise in a letter to the editor in the next edition 11.

Lomax claimed that he had had so many inquiries on his criticism of Dr Mercier’s definition of insanity following his review of Crime and Criminals, that he felt obliged to expand on it further 9. Entitled What is Insanity, it was published as an original paper in July 1919 by the Medical Press and Circular 12. Lomax dissected Mercier’s definition of insanity. The whole article appears to me to be an attempt at vicious iconoclasm, so presumable he was still smarting from Mercier’s attack on him in 1917. Sentences such as ‘In his masterful and dogmatic way he {Mercier} announced that he defined insanity thirty years ago and all that remains for an awed and chastened medical world is to accept his definition with becoming gratitude and respect’,  and ‘I have said and thought that not only is Dr Mercier confused in his thought and perverse in his reasoning , but that at times he contradicts himself outright’. 

Charles Mercier wrote a three page reply with another original paper – What Is Madness – in August 1919 13. He defended his definition of insanity and then proceeded to undermine Lomax, matching and perhaps exceeding Lomax’s levels of sarcasm. The paper is scattered with sentences such as ‘If Dr Lomax has arrived at his conclusions by means of spiritualism, I advise him to change his medium’. Not content to let things lie, Lomax countered with a two page rebuttal on August 20th 1919 which he conclude with ‘I must henceforth regard him {Mercier} as a pretentious but extinct volcano, still capable of generating noxious vapours but whose mental lava has ceased to flow’ 14. 

Mercier sent a final letter to the editor, complaining that Lomax’s real grievance against him was that when Lomax attacked him, he Mercier had had the bad taste to defend himself 15. Mercier died on 2nd September 1919 following a long and serious illness the day before this last letter was published. As a rather sad little postscript to this very public spat, Lomax wrote an appreciation to follow Mercier’s obituary printed in the Medical press and Circular 17th September 1919. In it, Lomax noted that he had ‘unwittingly given pain to a dying man’. He said that he wanted to testify publicly to the great admiration he had for Mercier’s brilliant mental gifts, and that he had only attacked Mercier’s writing in the cause of clear thinking 16.

It is so hard to understand why Lomax should have chosen to battle against this respected bastion of 20th century English psychiatry. At the end of the day, they were both on the same side with Lomax aiming to improve on the suggestions for asylum reform made by Mercier a quarter of a century earlier.  Lomax was well used to fighting his corner through the press , and it is possible that Lomax enjoyed the ‘joust’ (his analogy) through the medium of the written word. Perhaps this was a simply a personal vendetta. However, and here I am speculating, I wonder if he was courting controversy deliberately in order to raise his profile. Between October 1917 and June 1919, he was working as an assistant medical officer in the Prestwich Lunatic asylum – his letters to the Medical Press and Circular are signed ‘Montagu Lomax, Prestwich, Lancashire’. He was gathering material for his book at this time and perhaps he considered that any sort of publicity would be helpful for his cause – the Edwardian equivalent of a Twitter storm. 

Of course we will never know his motivation, but his attacks on Mercier almost certainly alienated  the psychiatric profession even before he had  published his book. Dr Doris Odlum wrote to Dr Tim Harding in 1973 about her recollections of Lomax -‘The older psychiatrists, of course resented Lomax very much and the younger psychiatrists were very much under the authority of their seniors and if they had any views they did not express them as far as I am aware’ 17. A rather sniffy letter to the BMJ in October 1921, commented that ‘Dr Lomax in his book records his great admiration for the late Dr Charles Mercier, but there can be little doubt as to the value that eminent  psychiatrist would have attached to the views of any assistant medical officer…..” 18

The million dollar question here is whether Lomax would have achieved asylum reform with the psychiatric community on his side. Personally, I suspect he would always have been seen as an outsider and a whistleblower and would have been shunned and shamed by his own profession with or without the battle against Charles Mercier.

References are available on request.

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