Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Conolly, John
CONOLLY, JOHN (1794–1860), physician, was born at Market Rasen in Lincolnshire on 27 May 1794. His father was a member of a well-known Irish family, the Conollys of Castletown. Readers of Swift will remember the whimsical passage in which the Drapier refers to the proverbial wealth and importance of Squire Conolly. Little if any, of this wealth descended to John Conolly's father, who came to England to seek his fortime, settled in Lincolnshire, and remained without definite profession or calling. He married a lady named Tennyson, cousin-german to George Tennyson, grandfather to the poet laureate. Mrs. Conolly appears to have been a woman of considerable ability and force of character, which were displayed under the trying circumstances of an early widowhood with narrow means. Soon after his father's death, Conolly, then in his sixth year, was sent to live with his mother's friends at Hedon, where there was a grammar school. He has left among his posthumous papers a somewhat bitter description of the quiet little village and the dull school where everything seemed to slumber except the cane. In after years he wondered at the folly of pedagogues who try to feed the infant mind with the philosophic and elaborately elegant compositions of Horace. After seven years spent at Hedon he rejoined his mother at Hull, where his schooling was completed. Mrs. Conolly had married again, her second husband being a French émigré. From him Conolly acquired a good knowledge of the French language. In after life his acquaintance with the literature of France was extensive, and its study formed the favourite amusement of his leisure. At the age of eighteen he became an ensign in the Cambridgeshire militia, and travelled through various parts of Scotland and Ireland with his regiment. To the last he retained a pleasing recollection of his experiences as a soldier. A year after Waterloo Conolly relinquished soldiering and married, when but twenty-two, the daughter of Sir John Collins, a naval captain. His brother, Dr. William Conolly, was at that time practising in Tours. John spent the first year of his married life near his brother, in a cottage beautifully situated on the banks of the Loire, called ‘La Grenadière,’ afterwards the home of Béranger, who has celebrated it in a song, ‘Les Oiseaux de la Grenadière.’ The exhaustion of his scanty fortune and the birth of a child turned Conolly's attention to the need of working. He returned home in 1817, and entered upon the study of medicine in the university of Edinburgh. He threw himself into the pursuit of medical knowledge with characteristic ardour. He was a keen debater in the medical society of the university, and obtained the coveted honour of being one of its vice-presidents. ‘There are few,’ he says, writing in 1834, ‘who, looking back on those studious, temperate, happy years, can say that time has brought them anything more valuable.’ He graduated as doctor in 1821, when his inaugural thesis was a dissertation ‘de Statu Mentis in Insaniâ et Melancholiâ.’ Having paid a short visit to Paris to complete his studies, he began to practise medicine in Lewes, whence he removed in a few months to Chichester. Dr. (afterwards Sir John) Forbes was then in practice in Chichester, and the young men formed a strong and lasting friendship; but the district did not afford sufficient employment for both, and in a year's time Conolly moved again to Stratford-on-Avon. Here he remained about five years, and appears to have achieved as great a measure of success as his capacities for the general practice of his profession permitted. He did a good deal of miscellaneous literary work. Associated with his friend, Dr. Darwall, he assisted Dr. James Copland [q.v.] in editing ‘The London Medical Repository.’ ‘We endeavoured,’ he says, ‘especially to call attention to the numerous valuable medical books then appearing in France and Germany, and also to the still more neglected older medical writers of the profession.’ Copland and Darwall wished Conolly to join them in preparing a dictionary of medicine. Conolly doubted the accomplishment of so laborious a task by three men. It was subsequently undertaken by Copland alone. While at Stratford Conolly took a prominent part in the affairs of the town, was alderman and twice mayor of the borough. He interested himself in every movement for the public good, was enthusiastic for ‘sanitation,’ and took much trouble, both by writing and personally, to instruct his neighbours in physiological matters usually neglected. He was more popular than reformers generally are, and till very recently many old people about Stratford recollected him with affection. His professional income, however, did not exceed 400l. per annum. In 1827 he moved to London, and in the following year was appointed professor of the practice of medicine in University College. While he held that chair he published his work on the ‘Indications of Insanity.’ At the same time he unavailingly endeavoured to induce the London University authorities to introduce clinical instruction in insanity into their curriculum. About this period he was an active member of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for which he wrote several papers. In spite of the friendship of Lord Brougham, Lord John Russell, and many other very influential men, Conolly failed in practice as a London physician, nor does it appear that his professorial duties were performed with any distinguished ability. In 1830 he left London and went to Warwick. Here he again held the post of inspecting physician to the asylums in Warwickshire, which he had occupied while at Stratford. He continued to write a good deal. He assisted his friend Forbes in editing the ‘British and Foreign Medical Review’ and the ‘Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine,’ to which he contributed several articles. One of these on hysteria is judiciously written, and shows considerable reading. It has been absurdly said to have been written in one evening in the intervals of conversation with his brother editors. The length of the article and the number of the extracts and references contained in it deprive it of any claim to this supposed merit. While living at Warwick, Conolly maintained his interest in the neighbouring town of Stratford-on-Avon, was chairman of a committee formed to restore the chancel of Stratford church, and was active in organising the successful opposition made by the inhabitants of that town to the removal of the dust of Shakespeare from its resting-place. About this period he co-operated with Hastings and Forbes in the foundation of a medical society which afterwards became well known as the British Medical Association. In 1838 he moved to Birmingham. In 1839 he was appointed resident physician to the Middlesex Asylum at Hanwell, then the largest institution of the kind in England. About a year previously he had competed unsuccessfully for the same post. Others had already laboured to introduce a humane and rational method of treating the insane. In France, Pinel was the first, in 1792 or 1793, to boldly advocate and practise the treatment of lunatics without chains and stripes. In this country the projection by William Tuke, in 1792, of the celebrated ‘Retreat’ at York, which was practically under his management although the property of the Society of Friends, inaugurated the new system. That institution was the first in Great Britain established not only with the avowed object of providing a place for the kindly care of the mentally afflicted, but one in which it was actually carried out. When Conolly entered on his labours, it had for more than a quarter of a century been known to the world through Samuel Tuke's ‘Description of the Retreat,’ and humane principles had begun to leaven the practice of asylum physicians. Dr. Charlesworth and Mr. Gardiner Hill, at the Lincoln Asylum, had even gone so far as to dispense altogether with instrumental, or, as it is called, mechanical restraint, in the management of their patients. Conolly warmly adopted the most advanced practice of his predecessors. He took charge of the Hanwell Asylum on 1 June 1839. From 21 Sept. of the same year every form of mechanical restraint was absolutely discontinued. The whole armoury of strait-waistcoats, straps, restraint-chairs, &c., was laid aside. The experiment became the subject of much discussion. It had never before been tried on so large a scale nor in any place where it could arouse much attention. Within the twelve years during which he was supreme at Hanwell a revolution was effected throughout the country in the management of the insane. The enthusiasm of Conolly overcame every difficulty. He adhered firmly to the principles he had laid down for himself, and by dint of intense earnestness, combined with very considerable eloquence, educated the public in an incredibly short space of time, and excited in minds akin to his own a fervour for reform which soon secured its universal triumph. Conolly was by no means original in the ideas to the execution and exposition of which he devoted the remainder of his life. He generously acknowledged his obligations to his predecessors, and always truly referred the reform in the treatment of the insane in England to the foundation of the York Retreat. He described himself as one of those ‘who followed in the path of William and Samuel Tuke,’ and spoke ‘gratefully of the extent of our debt to them.’ Their system differed from that of Gardiner Hill and Conolly merely in this, that they reduced restraint to the smallest point which they conceived compatible with the advantage and safety of the patient, without laying down any absolute and inflexible rule for all cases; while Conolly maintained positively that ‘there is no asylum in the world in which mechanical restraint may not be abolished not only with safety, but with incalculable advantage.’ Although this formula was probably too unqualified, a great work was undoubtedly accomplished by Conolly. He maintained that non-restraint was but one feature in his system. Its importance lay in the fact that it rendered possible, nay necessary, the entire adoption of a humane method of dealing with the insane. Yet non-restraint, if but one stone in the edifice, was the keystone. Indirectly science has gained by the reformed methods, for the study of insanity as a disease commenced when asylums ceased to be prisons; but the attitude taken up by Conolly in the matter was essentially an unscientific one. ‘Non-restraint’ was a shibboleth with him. Some of the best of his literary labour he unfortunately devoted to mere destructive criticism of the older system of asylum management. Though apt to entertain broad and enlightened views on medical subjects, he had little natural taste for merely medical work. He was rather a great administrator than a great physician. Minute investigation, patient research, or judicious weighing of evidence did not constitute his strength. His talents were literary more than scientific. He inherited some of the Irish peculiarities of ardent sentimentalism and fondness for the rhetorical in expression, though these were balanced by an extensive knowledge of the world, together with a width of general culture and a steadiness of purpose. In 1844 Conolly ceased to reside in the Hanwell Asylum, but retained medical control as visiting physician till 1852, when his connection with the institution practically ceased, though he was still consultant. At this time he lived in the village of Hanwell, where he owned a private asylum. He had a very large consulting practice in cases of mental disease. His best works belong to the later period of his life: ‘On the Construction and Government of Lunatic Asylums,’ 1847 (the most valuable and characteristic production of his pen); ‘The Treatment of the Insane without Mechanical Restraints,’ 1856; a short ‘Essay on Hamlet,’ 1863; and ‘Clinical Lectures’ delivered at Hanwell and printed in the ‘Lancet,’ 1845–6. The style of his later books is always easy and sometimes highly eloquent. His earlier writing is apt to be turgid. Only by practice did he attain the polish which characterises his mature work. His laboured memoir of Dr. Darwall, though published when he was forty years old, can at best be called promising. Among the many honours which he received two may be specially mentioned. When the British Medical Association met at Oxford the university bestowed upon Conolly the honorary degree of D.C.L. On the occasion of his resignation of the post of visiting physician to the Middlesex Asylum, a great public testimonial was conferred upon him, in the shape of ‘a handsome piece of plate emblematic of the work in which he had been so long engaged, and a portrait of himself by Sir Watson Gordon.’ The presentation was made amid imposing ceremony by Lord Shaftesbury, chairman of the Lunacy Commission.
Throughout life Conolly's health was never robust. During the years of his greatest activity he was tormented by a chronic cutaneous affection. He suffered much from rheumatic fever, which left traces of heart disease. In 1862 he lost a favourite grandchild, and being always a man of the warmest family affections, he spent an hour the day before the funeral weeping over the child's coffin. Next night he was seized with convulsions, which were followed by paralysis of the right side; he partially recovered, but had repeated similar attacks. After a severe recurrence of such seizures he died in his house at Hanwell on 5 March 1866.
[Sir James Clark's Memoir of Conolly; Maudsley's Memoir in Journal of Mental Science; obituary notices in Lancet (by Conolly's son-in-law, Dr. Harrington Tuke), and in Brit. Med. Journal; various works of Conolly; also Dr. Hack Tuke's Hist. of the Insane in the British Isles.]