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Biographical entry Gaskell, Samuel (1807 - 1886)

MRCS June 15th 1832; FRCS (by election) Aug 26th 1844.

March 1886
General surgeon


Educated at Manchester and Edinburgh. He early directed his attention to the treatment of the insane, and in 1840 was appointed Medical Superintendent of the large Asylum for the County of Lancaster, at a time when the treatment of the insane in England was only just beginning to emerge from a long-established system of ignorance, and various barbarous modes of restraint were in general use. At the time when Conolly was carrying out the non-restraint system at Harwell, Gaskell was doing the same at Lancaster, and with equally beneficial results. His good work soon became known to Lord Shaftesbury, who appointed him a Medical Commissioner in Lunacy in 1849, a post which he held till his resignation in 1866. This was the first time that an expert had been appointed Commissioner. Gaskell was a remarkably well-informed and painstaking official. He was not popular at the institutions which it was his duty to visit, on account of the thoroughness of his inspections. Proprietors and superintendents who did not look too minutely into details for themselves were greatly surprised, and not at all pleased, to find the dignified Commissioner looking into beds and cupboards, and all manner of uninvestigated places.

Both at the Lancaster Asylum and at Whitehall Place he helped forward the great and general movement in the treatment of the insane, which succeeded the new Lunacy Law of 1845. At the Lancaster Asylum, where John D Cleaton was his assistant, Gaskell adopted the then novel system of non-restraint, and he did much in his attempts to develop in his patients those faculties, or parts of faculties, of the mind which were not involved in the destructive processes of disease. The Earl of Shaftesbury has left on record the surprise and admiration with which he observed, under Gaskell's care, a number of female lunatics, each of whom had a young child to look after, with such beneficial results that Lord Shaftesbury declared to his audience that he then and there resolved that Gaskell should be the next medical colleague whom he would receive at the Board of the Commissioners.

After his appointment as Commissioner, Gaskell carried out, by his strenuous advice and support, a practical reform in the management of the insane. He caused each patient who was liable to be wet or dirty to be aroused, and placed in a condition to attend to the calls of nature at stated intervals, with the result that wet and dirty beds were reduced to units where they had been counted by scores, or even by hundreds. This alone was a vast step in asylum management, but it does not quite stand by itself, seeing that it led, too gradually perhaps, to a revolution in the system of night-nursing in asylums, which was put on quite a different footing from the perfunctory pretence of night-watching and nursing with which superintendents were more or less satisfied, with the general result of decrease of suicides, decrease of noise and violence at night, and a very general increase in the comfort and well-being of the inmates of all well-managed public asylums and hospitals for the insane. It should never be forgotten that what is designated the non-restraint system is not alone the abolition of mechanical restraint, but that it connotes a revolution in the treatment of the insane in a great number of particulars.

After a retirement of twenty years, Gaskell died at his residence in Walton, Surrey, at the end of March, 1886.

On the Want of Better Provision for the Labouring and Middle Classes when Attacked or Threatened with Insanity, 8vo, np, nd.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit Med Jour, 1886, I, 720].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England