‘”Useful both to the patients as well as to the State”. Work therapy in British India, c. 1860 – 1940’

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Prof Waltraud Ernst

Centre for Health, Medicine and Society, Oxford Brookes University

‘”Useful both to the patients as well as to the State”. Work therapy in British India, c. 1860 – 1940’

(Introduced by: Dr Yolanda Eraso, Health and Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University)

[22min; 9 slides]


Paper presented to the International Research Symposium:

"Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment:

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy"

26–27 June 2013,  St Anne’s College, Oxford


Abstract: Lunatic asylums in India were established by the British in the late eighteenth century. These were privately run, small establishments geared towards the confinement of mentally ill Europeans and Indians. During the course of the nineteenth century, the privately-managed facilities were replaced by larger, state-run institutions in the different provinces of the expanding British territory in South Asia. By the first half of the twentieth century about 20 or so mental hospitals provided different levels of medical care and institutional comfort. Along with the extension of the asylum system, patient work and labour therapy came to figure increasingly in the different institutions from about the middle of the nineteenth century.

This paper focuses on the balance between patient labour as therapy, occupation, means to combat idleness, income creation for the state, and forced labour at different periods in various institutions. It also discusses how patients were induced to engage in work, to what extent they refused to take part in labour regimes, and how such resistance was dealt with by hospital staff. It explores whether social and caste prejudices and sentiments affected the types of activities patients were expected to engage in.

The link between intensive work regimes and the concomitant decreased need to sedate patients, and 1920s and ‘30s debates on whether specialist staff trained in occupational therapy were necessary will be discussed.

The main primary sources for this paper consist of the annual reports of lunatic asylums/mental hospitals, from c. 1860 to 1940, with particular emphasis on the mental hospitals in Madras and in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa during the 1920s and ‘30s.



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