By Chris Sandal-Wilson.
Back in March 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic escalating and the first national lockdown beginning in the United Kingdom, a rare piece of good news brightened my inbox: the Palestine Exploration Fund had awarded me funding to travel to Beirut to research the history of Palestinian psychiatric patients at the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases in the first half of the twentieth century.
In researching my first book on colonial psychiatry and mental illness in British mandate Palestine, I had been struck by the number of Palestinian families who seemed to look north across the newly drawn border to Lebanon for the treatment of mentally ill relatives. I was excited at the prospect of using the archives of the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases to track what became of those patients once they arrived at their destination – and foolishly hoped I might be able to make use of the funding later that same year, once the pandemic and restrictions eased.
Over two years later, in June 2022, I finally found myself at the American University of Beirut, poring over the hospital’s archival records – a mask still covering my nose and mouth, and as it happens very usefully filtering the usual clouds of dust raised in the opening and closing of files which sometimes dated back more than a century. That I was able to postpone my trip for so long is in no small part thanks to the supportive, flexible approach adopted by the Palestine Exploration Fund across the pandemic.
After a delay of two years, my visit was quite different to the one I had initially envisaged. Outside the archive, the effects of not only the pandemic but the tragedy of the August 2020 port explosion and a spiralling economic crisis were painfully evident. Within the archive, the intervening years had also thrown up additional avenues of inquiry for me to pursue, on Palestinian patients and staff at the hospital before and after the mandate period.
Following up on these multiple research questions in the relatively short period of time I had was only possible with the support, expertise, and patience of Samar Mikati Kaissi and the entire archives and special collections team at the American University of Beirut, particularly Shaden Dada, Yasmine Younes, and Iman Abdallah. The records of the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases are extraordinarily rich, but – for good reasons – the original, idiosyncratic and somewhat opaque organisation of the material has been retained, and without such expert help they are difficult to navigate. As well as the archives and special collections team, I owe a special debt of gratitude to Lamia Moghnieh, for her invaluable guidance; her own research has been at the very forefront of the important work of recovering the history of this institution and its inhabitants.
Though I am still working through my notes from the trip, one of the most striking files I was able to read in the archives was a case book containing reports on over eight hundred male patients who were admitted to the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases between 1904 and 1909. While I previously had a rough idea of how many patients were admitted from what became mandate Palestine in these years from the hospital’s annual reports, the case book will allow me to undertake a more fine-grained analysis of not just where patients were coming from in Palestine, but how they break down in terms of gender, occupation, religion, and indeed diagnosis.
Already one important conclusion I have been able to draw is that many of the early patients from Palestine were Jewish, a finding which reinforces a central argument in my research more broadly: that far from being served by parallel Arab and Jewish health and welfare systems, across most of the first half of the twentieth century Muslim, Christian, and Jewish psychiatric patients very often found themselves being treated in the same institutions, whether within the boundaries of what became mandate Palestine or beyond.
Though I left excited at the possibilities for developing a fuller picture of the relationship between Palestinian patients and staff at the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases, I was also acutely aware – even amidst the beauty of AUB’s campus – that I was visiting Beirut for archival research at an immensely difficult time for the city. It is my sincerest hope that my next visit will be in much happier times.
Chris Sandal-Wilson is a lecturer in medical history at the University of Exeter. His first book, Mandatory Madness: Colonial Psychiatry and Mental Illness in British Mandate Palestine, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.
Fig. 1. The view from the campus of the American University of Beirut, looking out towards the sea. Photograph by Chris Sandal-Wilson.
Fig. 2. A snapshot of the extraordinarily rich and voluminous archival material relating to the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases now maintained at the American University of Beirut. Photograph by Chris Sandal-Wilson.
Fig. 3. One of the most exciting (and oldest) records I was able to read in the archives: a case book containing details of over eight hundred patients from the first years of the twentieth century. Photograph by Chris Sandal-Wilson.
Fig. 4. As well as rich archives and beautiful gardens, the AUB campus is home to many feline friends. Photograph by Chris Sandal-Wilson.