What is melancholy?

The word melancholy literally means an excess of choler, or black bile.

The Humours

Its origins lie within the humoural system, which dates back to at least the time of Ancient Greece and remained a significant influence on medical practice until the 1800s.

The humoural system is quite complex, as the diagram below demonstrates. Although the principles were changed and adapted over time, essentially, according to this idea, there were four humours in the body: yellow bile, black bile (also known as choler), phlegm and blood.

False imprisonment in the asylum

Fear of false imprisonment was a growing concern in eighteenth century Britain.  Private madhouses, where the inmates were paying customers, were particularly susceptible because there was little oversight of their practices. Although legislation to regulate asylums was introduced in 1774 its powers were limited and flagrant abuses of the system continued.

Sir Alexander Morison’s The Physiognomy of Mental Diseases

Sir Alexander Morison (1779-1866) was an early forensic psychiatrist who specialised in mental and cerebral illness. After studying at Edinburgh’s Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh, he joined the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh where he practised for some years before moving south. While in England, Morison worked as Physician of Lunatic Asylums in Surrey and Bethlehem Hospital, and in 1838 became the personal physician to Princess Charlotte and her husband Prince Leopold.