Montagu Lomax was born into a large family in 1860. His father had been a London tanner, but was also an astute business man and had made a considerable amount of money from property. He used his fortune to train as a Church of England vicar, and was then able to send his sons to public school, and to pay for them to enter the professions. Lomax became a doctor at the point when general practitioners struggled to make a good living in England. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because he wanted adventure, he took his young family out to live and work in New Zealand in 1890.
The six years he spent in the Antipodes were formative for him. He became a successful physician and surgeon in Christchurch, and he threw himself into everything the city could offer him, playing golf, joining many societies, and giving public lectures on his growing interest in theosophy. Lomax wrote and published poetry, and a book on a woman’s role in society. His wife was a high-calibre sportswoman – a scratch golfer, excellent tennis player and captained the Christchurch ladies rowing team. They had a busy social life, mixing with the very best of New Zealand society. Lomax learned to use the press to achieve his goal of modernising the Christchurch Hospital and building a nurses home. Then he fell out with one of the other doctors at the hospital, accusing Dr Murray-Aynsley of being drunk on duty and incompetent. The row was conducted through the press, with an exchange of vitriolic letters and the papers carrying detailed accounts of the subsequent hospital inquiry. Lomax won his case, but in the process, he had destroyed a fellow doctor who socialised through the same clubs. Murray-Aynsley was from an aristocratic background and was well connected in Christchurch. It is my reading of the events that Lomax may have made his own position in the town untenable. He decided to return to England in the autumn of 1896.
The next twenty years were clearly difficult for him and his family. He moved from job to job, town to town, country to country spending some years in Belgium and Italy. I can make no real sense of why he seemed so unsettled, and I have been unable to find exactly why he went to Belgium and Italy, or indeed what he was doing there. There are a few mentions of Dr Lomax’s unspecified illness in the local papers at intervals, and his elder brother also had some sort of chronic illness. Asthma would be unlikely, since he was a good sportsman. He was a driven man with huge energy, a poet and a writer – the possibility of bipolar disease did suggest itself to me. At any rate, Lomax continued to write, contributing to the medical press and developing his interest in theosophy and spiritual healing.
There was an added problem, and this is the ‘dark secret’ referred to in the header to this web site. His second son Armine, was mentally handicapped following a birth injury. He was described as feeble minded which was equivalent to a mild learning disability in today’s terms. Armine had been in psychiatric care from a very young age, and died in the Earlswood asylum aged 18 years. Putting handicapped children into care was normal around the beginning of the 20th century. This was partly because it was thought to be the best way to look after them, and partly because there was significant shame attached to having a mentally handicapped child – the so called ‘hereditary taint’. Lomax may have found being parted from his son very difficult. Armine died of ‘asylum dysentery’ in 1910 when Lomax was in Italy. I suspect that it was Armine’s death that pushed Lomax into his interest in Asylum reform.
Interestingly, Dr Helen Boyle had worked on asylum dysentery as a young doctor in 1900 and had established the cause was a bacillus, and that it could be prevented with simple hygiene methods. Armine Lomax’s death would have been avoidable by 1910. I believe that Helen Boyle was Montagu Lomax’s mentor throughout his foray into the lunacy reform movement.
The First World War resulted in a great shortage of doctors for the civilian population in the UK, and most doctors of military age were called up into the forces. In 1917 Lomax took the opportunity to work in the asylums, and spent almost two years gathering evidence for his book, The Experiences Of An Asylum Doctor, published in 1921. The press picked up on the book almost immediately, printing somewhat lurid headlines and stoking the interest and outrage of the public. Within weeks of its publication, questions were asked in Parliament, leading on to an independent inquiry by the Cobb Committee, followed by a Royal Commission, and eventually the 1930 Mental Treatment Act. Lomax spent the years between the publication of his book and the final report of the Royal Commission in 1926 criss-crossing the country, giving lectures to raise awareness of the problems with the Asylums. Many of the recommendations made by the Royal commission were very similar to the suggestions made by Lomax in his book.
Montagu Lomax died in 1933. I hope he felt some satisfaction knowing his work had led to the passing of the Mental treatment Act in 1930. He had been castigated by his own profession – the usual reward for a whistleblower – the British Medical Journal didn’t even acknowledge his death, and his obituary in the Lancet was brief. Later historians have subsequently acknowledged the importance of his role in the modernisation of the mental health services in Britain.
I believe that his involvement in the Lunacy reform movement was not accidental, and that he had met and corresponded with Dr Helen Boyle for some time prior to 1917 when he went to work in the Asylums. He may have been introduced to her by Dr Fletcher Beach, his son’s psychiatrist, or he may have met her through their mutual interest in spiritual healing. I think she advised him in his choice of the worst Asylum to work in, and guided him as he wrote his book and negotiated his way through the government enquiries and the Royal Commission.
The time and effort Lomax dedicated to Lunacy reform from 1917 to 1926 broke his health, seriously damaged his personal wealth, and reduced his status within the medical profession. Such commitment goes above and beyond his claim of being a humble GP who just wanted ‘to do his bit’ during the war. He was driven by a far stronger motive than he ever revealed in print. I believe that he was trying to atone for the death of his mentally handicapped son.