My Website

Friday 28 January 2022

A ‘gross and barbarous operation’: when Baker Brown featured in the Divorce Court

The phrase ‘hidden from history’ is often very loosely invoked, so it is perhaps testimony to the omertà of the British medical profession that the name and activities of Dr Isaac Baker Brown were concealed from view for nearly a century after his death in 1873. One might have anticipated that his views on the deleterious effects of female masturbation and his proposed remedy of clitoridectomy would have featured in the writings of late nineteenth and early twentieth- century sexologists, but even Iwan Bloch, that tireless and uncritical snapper-up of sexual curiosa, fails to mention the episode. Oddly, Havelock Ellis cited the views of one of Brown’s opponents in his account of Auto-erotism in Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897) without mentioning the context in which the opinion that female masturbation did not cause insanity was expressed.

The topic was first rediscovered by a Professor of Gynaecology, J. B. Fleming, after encountering a passage in the works of Lawson Tait ‘so full of mystery that it stimulated an investigation to be made into the circumstances which surrounded the fall of Baker Brown’. The results of his investigation were published as ‘Clitoridectomy—The disastrous downfall of Isaac Baker Brown, F.R.C.S. (1867).’ Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Empire 67 (1960): 1017–34.

It took some time for these findings to percolate more generally into knowledge of the period – although Alex Comfort had touched on the matter in The Anxiety Makers: Some Curious Preoccupations of the Medical Profession (1967), Ronald Pearsall, in The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality (1969) made a reference to ‘a doctor named Baker Brown [who] performed a mysterious operation on her, unknown to her husband’ (p.156). It is not quite clear where Pearsall acquired that information, since the case was very extensively reported and the nature of the operation revealed, along with Baker Brown’s negligence over obtaining her husband’s consent.

The Hancock-Peaty case of early 1867, in fact, if perhaps rather beyond what the sensation novel of the period could contain and still be acceptable to the circulating libraries, strikes one as possibly the basis for a rather noir neo-Victorian novel, or possibly TV drama.

It was not, technically, a divorce case. Mr Peaty wanted to stay married to his wife, the former Miss Hancock, but her relatives were claiming that her mental condition meant that she had been incompetent to consent to matrimony. The fact that she had, subsequent to the marriage, inherited £3000, may have had some bearing on this. Previously, one suspects, the family had been happy for their cousin, who had been wishing to marry her for some while, to take on the responsibility, and after all, medical men had expressed the opinion that marriage might be beneficial for her ‘hysteria’ – a term which hardly encompasses the extreme eccentricity manifested by the lady in question.

At some point during the marriage, the wife’s sisters took her to Baker Brown, who performed what Peaty’s counsel referred to as a ‘gross and barbarous operation’, without seeking Mr Peaty’s consent. He subsequently took her to St Luke’s Hospital, in order to preserve her from further surgical interventions. Dr Ellis, of that establishment, considered that ‘the surgical operation known as clitoridectomy would be a most improper one in her case’, while conceding that it was currently a subject of debate and controversy within the profession. The subject was also discussed by other medical witnesses.

The extent to which this controversial, ‘barbaric’ procedure thus obtained newspaper coverage through reportage of courtroom testimony contrasts remarkably with the very discreet way in which the expulsion of Baker Brown from the Obstetrical Society was dealt with by the mainstream press. While the meeting was covered in all its heated detail in professional journals, only brief paragraphs alluded to the event in newspapers intended for the general public. The case is hardly mentioned at all in the historiography generated around Baker Brown from the late twentieth century onwards

A question which arises is whether – allied to the controversy over Baker Brown’s book On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females (1866), the argument with the Lunacy Commission conducted in the pages of The Times over his claiming to treat lunatics in an institution not licensed by the Commissioners for that purpose – appearing by repute in a high-profile case in connection with ‘barbarous operations’ repudiated by the medical witnesses, added further weight to the scales leading to his expulsion from the Obstetrical Society.

Lawson Tait’s obituary of Baker Brown, quoted in extenso in the Fleming article, hinted at developing mental problems. A curious report in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 15 December 1867, would suggest a certain erraticness of behaviour manifesting. In the course of a case in which Baker Brown was suing a music-hall singer for unpaid charges for professional attendance, the defendant claimed that the surgeon had asked him to make introductions to ‘young ladies’ connected with the music-hall.