Longitudinal lunacy: Science and madness in the eighteenth century

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia
Daniel Vuillermin
Beijing, China


Interior of Bethlem Royal Hospital, from A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth. The poor soul in the background is trying to solve the longitude problem.

“A couple of young Non conformist preachers from Worksop in the North of Derbyshire came thither to have my approbation of some Method they had to propose for finding the Longitude at sea, one I shall tell you because it will make you laugh abundantly.”1

John Flamsteed, Britain’s first Astronomer Royal, was at his wit’s end. Ever since Parliament had passed the Longitude Act in early July 1714, the nation’s drive to resolve the era’s most pressing scientific problem — determination of one’s longitude at sea — had generated a “Swarme of hopefull Authors.” The pursuit of a practically viable method for longitude determination caught the imagination of a wide gamut of “projectors,” from serious scholars like Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton to the “longitude lunatics” so vividly depicted in William Hogarth’s masterwork A Rake’s Progress (1735, “Retouch’d by the Author” in 1763).

The public view of those pursuing solutions to the perennial longitude problem deteriorated rapidly throughout the eighteenth century. Finding longitude had become the work of madmen. The brother of Thomas Gainsborough, the celebrated artist, became known as “Scheming Jack” because of his longitude schemes. One visitor wrote, “I could scarcely detect whether his deranged imagination or his wonderful ingenuity was most to be admired.”2 Jonathan Swift, who satirized experimental philosophers for their hubris in Gulliver’s Travels, similarly linked the quest for a longitude solution to other “impossibilities” such as perpetual motion and universal medicine.

The practice of “projecting” had become associated with naive, foolish, or even malicious schemes that took advantage of public gullibility, generating financial investments that never yielded a return. The quest for a solution to the longitude problem became the ultimate example of foolishness and naivety. Already in 1697, Daniel Defoe, the famous author, had little positive to say about projectors:

“A meer Projector then is a Contemptible thing, driven by his own desperate Fortune to such a Streight, that he must be deliver’d by a Miracle, or Starve; and when he has beat his Brains for some such Miracle in vain, he finds no remedy but to paint up some Bauble or other, as Players make Puppets talk big, to show like a strange thing, and then cry it up for a New Invention.”3

In early-to-mid eighteenth century Britain, longitude projectors became synonymous with the impoverished or criminal “lunatics.” William Hogarth’s “modern moral subject,” A Rake’s Progress (see Figure 1), portrays the tensions between scientific pursuit and madness during the Enlightenment. Renaissance depictions of madness — replete with angels and devils wrestling for the souls of the mad — were supplanted by images that were staged not in heaven or hell but in the secular, material world and in particular the “madhouse.”

Hogarth’s satire portrays young Tom Rakewell, who is eventually confined to London’s most notorious madhouse, Bethlem (“Bedlam”) Royal Hospital, having squandered his inheritance. Hogarth portrays a wide cast of lunatics: a delusional “king,” a mad musician, a religious zealot, a forlorn lover, as well as two inquisitive yet crazed scientists. In the eighth and final panel of A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth is not necessarily critical of the particular pursuits of the mad but rather makes the judgment that excessive inquisitiveness or indulgence — in religion, music, love, power, or science — will lead to madness. Here, he conflates morality with humoral theory: an excess of blood induces mania. This is evinced by Rakewell’s pose, which Hogarth directly copied from Raving by the Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber, one of two statues that adorned the Bethlem entrance (see Figure 2).

The man peering through the cardboard telescope — perhaps attempting to measure lunar distances, a tried-and-tested yet unworkable solution to the scientific problem at hand — and the fellow drawing lines of longitude and latitude on the wall behind him are engaged in what most straight-thinking citizens considered a futile, or, indeed, excessive attempt to solve the longitude problem. These poor attitudes to innovation also seriously harmed scientific progress. Even John Harrison, ultimately awarded approximately half of the coveted Longitude Prize, was caught up in the era’s negativity and ridicule of the mentally insane. A simple clockmaker from the north of England, his use of language differed from that of the learned Commissioners on the Board of Longitude, and so his ideas were cast in the negative mold of a lunatic projector.4

Hogarth’s masterwork indeed served as a reflection of the era’s sins and of the follies of the world at large.5 It also provides a unique insight into the public’s prevailing attitudes toward psychiatric illness; in the middle of the painting, we see two refined, voyeuristic women looking on with amusement. The multitude of symptoms of the mad were considered a source of public amusement, along with tourist attractions such as the Tower of London and the royal palaces, at least until the end of public “penny visits” in 1770. Patients were often fettered to control their behavior and to keep the paying visitors safe. In the words of the cultural historian Mike Jay,

Two statues by the Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber, representing melancholy and mania, adorned the entrance to Bethlem (1676).

“Like a ghost train or a freak show, or indeed the surgery and autopsy—demonstrations that were also on offer to the London public—it offered an extreme but safely contained experience, and a stage on which high-spirited visitors could perform acts of daring or display their wit.”6

Such visits went beyond casual morbid curiosity, however; they served educational aims.7 They allowed the public to see the inmates and view common treatments. One notable absence from Hogarth’s image is the figure of the “mad-doctor.” Instead, we see two “keepers,” one of whom molests Rakewell’s faithful servant, Sarah Young, while the other shackles the ankle of the fallen rake. Hogarth’s use of fetters suggests that Rakewell was both mad and impoverished; according to Thomas Monro, Principal Physician at Bethlem from 1792 to 1816, chains were “fit only for pauper lunatics: if a gentleman was put in irons he would not like it.”

Bethlem Hospital only catered to the poorest of the poor; the better-off went mad in the comfort of their own homes or in private madhouses. Bethlem Hospital soon became a “mirror of madness” and a byword for the poor treatment of those members of society who most needed proper care. Staple treatments included indiscriminate use of blood letting, blistering, cold baths, drugging with common laxatives, and purges.8 Bethlem became the final resting place of the poorest mentally ill souls before death took them away. Throughout history, this unenviable treatment of the insane has been immortalized by Francisco de Goya’s famous painting The Madhouse, Raymond Depardon’s photo-essay Manicomio (1977–1981), and Sergei Chepik’s work The House of the Dead (1987).

Strikingly, Royal Navy sailors were overrepresented among the inmates in Bethlem Hospital. This should not be surprising, however. Drowning at sea was a recurrent nightmare and the Royal Navy’s sailors were considered odd by their contemporaries on shore. Mental problems among the eighteenth century “Jolly Tars” proliferated at a rate of up to seven times that of the nation’s general population.9 Peer pressure related to notions of masculinity most likely formed the basis of this explosion of insanity among sea-faring crews. Surgeons’ journals offer valuable insights into the molds sailors were expected to fit into and the detrimental conditions they were exposed to during their long sojourns at sea: a youthful, heroic stereotype, trauma, poor diets, isolation, and alcohol abuse.10 In present-day parlance, their lengthy, intense voyages at sea had given rise to psychological disorders under the umbrella of post-traumatic stress disorders.

As a case in point, Jeremiah Raven, retired Royal Navy sailor, was expelled from Greenwich Mental Hospital — “British Sea Power in Stone,” a somewhat more upscale mental health establishment than Bethlem — in October 1756 after suffering sustained violent and disruptive “fits” of insanity, which he blamed on a fire on the H.M.S. Dragon burning to death one of his messmates.11

Nevertheless, and despite the many unsavory practices employed, Bethlem, Greenwich, St Luke’s, and other mental asylums in eighteenth century Britain played important roles in shaping our current understanding of psychological disorders, from melancholy to mania, from the more benign forms of heartbreak or anxiety to the most serious instances of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Image Credit

  1. William Hogarth (1697-1764). The Rake’s Progress, Plate VIII “Scene in Bedlam,” engraved by H. Fernell. Source: Complete Works, facing p. 102. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. Accessed via The Victorian Web.
  2. Statues of “raving” and “melancholy” madness, each reclining on one half of a broken segmental pediment, formerly crowning the gates at Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. Engraving by C. Warren, 1808, after C. Cibber, 1680. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY



  1.  1714-08-31: Flamsteed, John—Sharp, Arbraham; in: Flamsteed J 2001 The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, The First Astronomer Royal, 1703–1719 vol 3 ed E G Forbes (Bristol: CRC Press) 700; letter 1360
  2. Armstrong W 1898 Gainsborough and his place in English art (London: William Heinemann) 45
  3. Defoe D 1697 An Essay upon Projects (London: Printed by R.R. for Tho. Cockerill) 33–34
  4. Barrett K 2013 The Wanton Line: Hogarth and the public life of longitude, PhD thesis, Univ of Cambridge (UK)
  5. Howard R 2002 Psychiatry in Pictures, Brit. J. Psych. 181, A10
  6. Routledge P, 16 September 2016, Bedlam’s theatre of madness: A mental hospital, tourist attraction and the mirror of a nation, The Mirror (UK), https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/bedlams-theatre-madness-mental-hospital-8845687 (accessed 13 April 2019)
  7. Andrews J 1991 Hardly a Hospital, but a Charity for Pauper Lunatics?: Therapeutics at Bethlem in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in: Medicine and Charity Before the Welfare State, eds Barry J and Jones C (London: Routledge) 65
  8. Porter R 1990 Mind-Forg’d Manacles: A history of madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (London: Penguin Group) 278
  9. Blane G 1815 Statements of the comparative health of the British Navy from the year 1779 to the year 1814, with proposals for its further improvement. Medico-Chirurgical Trans. 564–565
  10. Bowden-Dan J 2013 Manacles or Moral Management? Treating Insanity at Haslar Naval Lunatic Asylum, https://globalmaritimehistory.com/madness-manacles-moral-management-treating-insanity-haslar-naval-lunatic-asylum/ (accessed 13 April 2019)
  11. UK National Archives n.d. ADM 65/81 Petition



RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics and associate dean at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His recent monograph, Time and Time Again (2017, Institute of Physics Publishing, UK), explores the history of the determination of longitude at sea in the seventeenth century.


DANIEL VUILLERMIN, PhD, is a lecturer at the School for Health Humanities at Peking University in China. He is currently writing a cultural history of diagnosis.


Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Psychiatry Psychology