Helen Boyle (1869-1957)

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Dr Helen Boyle

Helen Boyle was a prominent psychiatrist at the beginning of the 20th century. She is important in the story of Montagu Lomax, and may be a key figure.

Boyle was born in Dublin in 1869, but her education was completed in France and Germany. She came back to Britain to study at the London School of medicine for women, and took her MD in Brussels with distinction She established the Lady Chichester hospital for functional nervous disorders, which pioneered early treatment of non-psychotic illness in women [1, 2]. Sir Robert Armstrong-Jones, Boyle’s former chief at Claybury Asylum, Sir Maurice Craig and many other distinguished men and women gave their support to the hospital as honorary consultants or patrons [3].

Boyle was an innovator throughout her life, being instrumental in setting up the Medical Women’s federation, and the National Council for Mental Hygeine (which later became MIND) [2]. In 1939 she was made the first woman president of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association. She served in Serbia with the Royal Free hospital unit in 1914-18 which was a considerable achievement for a middle aged woman.

Harding established through interviews with Helen Boyle’s ex- colleagues that Lomax had visited Boyle’s Lady Chichester hospital and was corresponding with her [4]. He knew that she had encouraged Lomax to visit another prominent psychiatrist, Professor George Robertson, in Edinburgh. Boyle was also commited to lunacy reform and had served on the Committee of the Medico-Psychological Association appointed in 1918 to consider the amendment of the existing Lunacy Laws [5]. Boyle, like Lomax was interested in the promotion of spiritual healing, and served with Robert Armstrong-Jones on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special committee on spiritual healing [6]. The BMJ obituary wrote ‘Dr Boyle had strong religious beliefs and was a founder member of the Churches Council of Healing. She never found any difficulty in reconciling psychiatry and religion, and believed that man was essentially a spiritual being’[1].

 

There were further connections between Lomax and Boyle. She was the first person with Sir Frederick Mott, to identify bacillary dysentery within asylum patients [2]. Lomax’s son Armine, died of asylum dysentry in Earlswood asylum in 1910. Lomax had moved to Brighton by 1918, and in 1922 he was living in Hove. This seems too much of a coincidence when Boyle had been based between Brighton and Hove since 1897, and also lived in Hove. I am speculating here but I suspect that they had a close working relationship with the aim of asylum reform. 

Harding noted that Boyle and Robertson never gave Lomax public support, but commented ‘Perhaps he (Lomax) understood their position in a spirit of conspiracy to bring about change’ [4]. Certainly to acknowledge their relationship in whatever form would have revealed a conflict of interest since Boyle served on the 1922 Cobb Committee set up to investigate Lomax’s book, and later on the 1924 Royal Commission which lay the foundation for the 1930 mental Treatment Act.

Bibliography

1. obituary, Helen Boyle MD. The British Medical Journal, 1957. 2: p. 1310.

2. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004: Oxford University Press.

3. Odlum, D., The Lady Chichester Hospital, in Chapter 36. 1968: The Wecome Library Archive MS7913/38.

4. Harding, T.W., “Not worth powder and shot”. A reappraisal of Montagu Lomax’s contribution to mental health reform. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 1990. 156(2): p. 180-187.

5. Boyle, H., The Ideal Clinic for the Treatment of Nervous and Borderland Cases. Proc R Soc Med, 1922. 15(Sect Psych): p. 39-49.

6. Spiritual Healing. Nature, 1924. 113: p. 73-74.

https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/about-us/library-archives/archives-document-library/archives-dr-helen-boyle-first-woman-president.pdf?sfvrsn=bd43967f_2

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