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The crazy psychiatric treatment developed by Charles Darwin's grandfather

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Doctor Joseph Mason Cox was a man to avoid. Unfortunately, those who went to the Fishponds Private Lunatic asylum didn’t have the option to avoid him. To be fair, Cox just wanted people to have long, healthful periods of sleep. At the dawn of the age of opiates, he turned his back on pharmacology and practiced “rotation therapy.”

Rotation therapy is pretty much what it sounds like, except more extreme. Cox would put a person in a chair or a swing, and have orderlies spin them around. The time spent spinning, and the speed of the spin, were to be determined by the good doctor. Considering the fact that the common side effect was fear, extreme pallor, vomiting, and voiding the bowels and bladder, the doctor evidently commonly overdid it. Of course he didn’t think so at the time. He wrote happily that, “after a few circumvolutions, I have witnessed the soothing lulling effects, when the mind has become tranquillized and the body quiescent.” It’s true that after being spun until fluid leaves the body via every available orifice, most people have had the fight taken out of them and are ready for a nap. That doesn’t make it good medicine.


Cox most often used a conventional chair hung from the ceiling with ropes, but he publicly acknowledged that the best device for the process was designed by a “Doctor Darwin.” No, not that Darwin, but close. Erasmus Darwin could be held up as proof that scientific talent doesn’t run in families. (Not even the ability to recognize it runs in families, as Charles Darwin was considered the academic dunce of Erasmus’ family.) He came up with “rotation therapy,” and designed a sort of cubicle attached to a rotating pole. He never actually built the chair, nor did he use it on his patients — probably because he wanted to keep them, and unlike Cox he was treating only people who voluntarily came to see him.


Amazingly, the treatment had legs. Multiple institutions established it. One accolade, written by a particularly nasty character named William Hallaran, reveals a possible reason why. He wrote, “since the commencement of its use, I have never been at a loss for establishing supreme authority over the most turbulent and unruly.” Hallaran did Darwin three better, making the contraption fit four people at a time, and getting it fast enough to make a hundred rotations a minute.

There is one positive side effect of this kind of rampant torture of the insane. Scientists started noticing that vertigo has visual effects, and used the chairs to study them. These rotating chairs mark the beginning of a lot of visual and mental experiments done on perception.

Image: Benny Mazur

[Via Perception, Guts and Gore.]