Dundee Lunatic Asylum

At the time of its opening on Albert Street, there were three patients admitted to the Dundee Lunatic Asylum, but as time went on, these numbers swelled to proportions that became unmanageable for the premises, resulting in the asylum’s relocation (in 1882) soon after being granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria. Having gone through many transitions and names, it was renamed Royal Dundee Liff Hospital in 1963. To begin with, the asylum relied heavily on contributions from the public and various bodies, such as the Masonic Lodges and other well-heeled organisations and individuals who were in a position to offer financial help. Life was not easy for many people in Dundee, as well as elsewhere up and down the country. People still expressed the same feelings of doubt, grief and mental anxiety that we still see today in modern society, but, unfortunately for those living at the time of the asylum’s opening, proper diagnosis and treatment can in no way be compared to the vast range of assistance offered today.

General Paresis, more often known as general paralysis of the insane or paralytic dementia, was the main cause of many deaths in the asylum, most likely brought on by the onslaught of syphilis. Late-stage syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) caused severe neurological issues, usually accompanied by psychotic symptoms whereby a patient would emote delusions of wealth/grandeur, immortality, sexual prowess, nihilism and anarchism. Unfortunately for many of them, the disease left them bedridden and, in more severe cases, straight-jacketed. Death was a slow process of muscle atrophy, mania and a complete disconnection from life around them.

People from all walks of life passed through the doors of the asylum, each with their own unique experiences leading to their admission. What we found of particular interest, were the number of cases deemed “cured” after very short periods of time (particularly in those who expressed homicidal tendencies!). A 49 year old man was admitted in the mid 1840’s, expressing what was described as “severe homicidal mania”. He expressed intense desires to cut the throats of his wife and children, with no real reason as to why. He was deemed cured, and released back to his family within 3 months.

In some cases, the patient was never deemed cured, and would be transferred to another institution such as the Cupar asylum or Montrose asylum to begin another round of diagnosis and treatment. There is a case of a 35 year old male admission displaying extreme delusions coupled with intense violence. He had been in and out of prisons and asylums since the age of 27, and truly believed that “the Divine King” had commissioned him to commit acts of violence. He was noted to “besmear his face with excrement”, and also tried to have “sexual intercourse with a male nurse” he thought was a woman. Wandering about his room naked, he would complain that his clothes smelled of blood. He was transferred to Cupar asylum as uncured.


Surprisingly, even those suffering from extreme grief were admitted to the asylum for short periods, receiving care and attention until their emotional pain became more manageable. The records for 1824 show a young girl of 17 was admitted for “dementia, grief” (not dementia as we know it today). After 6 weeks at the asylum, her emotional state was deemed well enough that she could re-enter society. Unfortunately, with no family to look after her and having been dismissed from employment due to her mental state, she was transferred to the Poorhouse.

There are a few very unique records for some patients within the almost never-ending lists of records, such as the curious case of one female patient, described as having “demonomania”. She describes seeing the devil and his “imps” and talks of the “devil coming to carry her away” and of being “sold to the devil”. Interestingly, a large abcess appeared on her lips around this time. After 7 weeks, the abcess burst, and, miraculously, all her symptoms disappeared!

Some of the troubled indivduals confined to the asylum warranted no more than sympathy and, for all intents and purposes, seemed quite “normal”. In the corner of one of the rooms sat a petite 37 year old woman. Recently bereaved, she speaks of her upcoming wedding “next Monday”. She is described as a bright, happy individual, with a cheerful disposition. With no change to her mental state, the poor soul died after 2 years of “General Paresis”.

Strathmartine Hospital image copyright Scott A Murray at www.oblivionstate.com

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13 thoughts on “Dundee Lunatic Asylum

  • August 12, 2015 at 7:41 am

    Several years ago while doing family tree research, I went to the archives at Dundee University.
    I found two names in my family tree, I had always wondered why they had died in the lunatic asylum of paralysis of the insane. It made very sad but interesting reading!

  • August 12, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    the hospital was actually renamed Royal Dundee Liff Hospital

    • January 20, 2016 at 8:54 am

      Think it was also called “west green” at some stage too

  • November 5, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    As a Dundonian born and bred I thought I new a lot about Dundee’s past history but this site brings up something new all the time . I find the site amazing and hope it can go from strength to strength. I wish the site well in the future and look forward to more information on Dundee’s History.

    • November 5, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Thanks Thomas we really appreciate the support, we’ll keep the info coming!

  • February 12, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    ‘West Green,’ was actually the name for the hospitals main, ‘Centre Division,’ which included Ward 5, male acute admissions, (the locked admission ward). It also housed Ward 8, the long stay ward and others including Ward 9. male psychogeriatric unit.

  • July 15, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    My mum was a nursing sister in life hospital. As children, we were brought to the hospital to mix with the patients. We also went to their regular dances. There were some lovely, poor people in there. Very sad indeed.

  • September 3, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    During family research, I found my grandfather’s sister, Mary Duffy, who was sent to this Asylum as a girl, after being orphaned and sadly died in the asylum in her early 30’s. I have written to the Dundee Archives who can find her admission, but can’t tell why she spent her life there and how she died.

    Can anyone point me in the right direction please?

    • September 3, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      Hi Maureen, did you try the City archives, or the University of Dundee archives? If you have only tried one of them I would try the other. Can you let us know the time period? Might help someone point you in the right direction, thanks!

    • October 15, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Ah I see, so on Albert St just to the left of where baxter park is now, so many flats and shops on there now!

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