Willowburn Asylum

Dr Neville Parker M.D. F.R.C Psych

As the train gathers speed on the outskirts of Toowoomba, heading for the sheep and cattle country of south west Queensland, it races past Willowburn, the first station. There is no settlement, just a small cottage for the gate-keeper and across the creek a factory turns pigs into hams and bacon, spreading a sickly sweet smell over the surrounding countryside. Up on the hill behind a clump of trees hides the asylum housing a thousand forgotten people. It was there that a young doctor arrived in 1953 to begin his apprenticeship to become a psychiatrist.

Friends had scattered all over the state to become general practitioners; a small handful, the select few, stayed in teaching hospitals to prepare for careers as surgeons or physicians. Why couldn't he be a real doctor, loved and respected as they were in those days, my mother wondered. Psychiatrists were odd people who took refuge with their crazy patients in Victorian institutions; prisons not hospitals. Australian psychiatry did not cater for the idle rich, or the emotionally disturbed in those days. Freud's theories seemed to have no relevance to patients in this country; it was all in the genes or brain biochemistry.

I lived in a flat above the administration offices beside the Matron's flat, and was looked after by one of her favourites, an aging woman who had seen better days before becoming the French queen. Leah brightened the lounge with jam bottles, sixteen in all, which she filled with hibiscus and other flowers; Leah cooked the meals and generally cared for me. The only complaint was that she draped her washed underwear over the front landing, and relatives visiting patients might have wondered about the young bachelor living above the entrance.

On either side of this admission block, and forming a "U" were rows of two story brick or stone buildings. It was an asylum for the incurable, sent there in batches from the overcrowded mental hospital at Goodna to fill the spaces left by those who had died; few ever left the place alive. Some had relatives on the Darling Downs, most had no one to send them parcels or enquire about their well being. Each of the ten wards - males one side, females the other - had their airing yards surrounded by high wire fences like an old fashioned zoo, separating groups of people from each other and from the world outside. There one could see human beings dressed in drab over-sized clothes staring into space lost in reverie; some were gesturing, others talking to imaginary voices, and on occasion alone pacing up and down a well beaten track like a caged animal; but most were just sitting by themselves doing nothing.

Every morning they lined up for the doctor's visit, and one was greeted at the locked gate by the charge nurse swinging his bundle of keys, a hand towel tucked under a thick belt and used to help control anyone who became suddenly restless. Old Bill had a sore throat and Michael had fallen over and cut himself; Gordon was being a nuisance again and disturbing others, should his dose of paraldehyde be increased? The sick and injured having been examined, the doctor ceremoniously washed his hands in an enamel basin, signed the daily record and was escorted to the next ward. By morning tea the round was over; one quickly learnt that chatting with the patients was discouraged; it held up the nursing routine.

Set apart from these wards were two smaller buildings, which looked on to a carefully manicured oval, a favourite for district cricket clubs. One was a hospital for the physically ill, the other was an admission ward which accommodated the eighty or so with treatable mental disorders, who came and went each year. Bessie sat near the entrance to the hospital, one eye missing, secure in a canvas jacket with her arms tied behind to stop her from carrying out the Biblical injunction a second time "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out". She had taken this very literally. Her saucy asides contrasted with her fundamentalist beliefs.

The Medical Superintendent at the Willowburn Asylum could live like a Victorian country squire and look after his charges like a benevolent landlord giving them the same considered attention as the Asylum's stud pigs, dairy herd and vegetables which won prizes in the local agricultural show. His residence was set apart among beautiful gardens with a tennis court and a few greens of the disused golf course restored for his exclusive use.

There were three doctors on the staff; the Medical Superintendent, his deputy, and a medical officer; there was little for us to do. Someone had to be around in the afternoons just in case anything happened but it rarely did. A death provided a diversion for I was studying variations in the pattern of the blood vessels which circles the base of the brain; the disused mortuary, built like a small private chapel, provided an ideal venue for this investigation.

For the more sports minded doctor there was a tennis court; the cricket oval seemed to be reserved for outsiders but rumour had it that one doctor was appointed more for his skills with the bat and ball than for treating the sick. We had a link with the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous and a dentist, a solicitor and other respectable reformed alcoholics would bring along people the worse for wear and the hospital "dried them out" , cleaned them up, filled them with vitamins and we then spent hours listening to their stories. Before leaving they were taken on a conducted tour of the wards and several patients had been singled out to meet them, selected for their inability to remember any details of what they had done with their lives. "We will be introducing you to future alcoholics like this in a few years time if you don't stop drinking" . It was supposed to act as a deterrent but it didn't work. "You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink".

There is a hotel between Willowburn and Toowoomba and some of the alcoholics called in for a drink after they were discharged, others were back again within a few weeks; we were curing the incurables.

The office had a smell of fresh paint which one associates with Government buildings. Along one wall were rows of thick bound volumes containing the medical records of every patient since the Asylum had opened its doors in 1890 until a more modem records system was introduced. At first I browsed through these bulky records to fill in time, but they soon became compelling reading. Kept between the pages were press cuttings, letters and drawings and although most of the interesting ones had been removed, never to be found, there were still some which had been overlooked.

One which stood out was recorded in the Case Book for 1898. It included a page from the "Western Star" with the bold headline "Shocking Neglect of a Child" and in smaller print "Salvation Army to the Rescue". It gave a verbatim account of the evidence at the Court hearing. One witness testified: " At the Fourteen Mile about sundown in the middle of April, I saw a child in a 100 gallon tank with no bottom in it. The tank was in the yard, no shelter over it, no protection on the child's head. The child had a little frock on that came down to its hips; it was dirty and filthy and had sores on its face. It was sitting in a big milk dish with the dogs around it and it had been drinking out of the dish. I noticed lumps of sour milk on its face: It would eat raw meat, the entrails of a fowl and get a lamb to try to bite its ears off. It appeared like a child in its face and an animal in its walk" .

By way of explanation the guardian had this to say, "1 am a selector residing at Fourteen Mile. About five years ago, I went down to see my mother in New South Wales. My brother's wife had died when I got down, leaving this boy and five children. When I was coming back my mother asked me if I would fetch this child; she had been feeding it with a spoon for twelve months. She could not get any rest with it, and when she changed its clothes it would bite her."

"My brother told me to take it as my mother could not look after it; the smell was killing her. I brought it up to Queensland and it nearly killed me coming up. I was laid up three days with it. A doctor told me at Charleville it was not right in its brain. It had no sense, and would crawl into fire or under horses' feet; I had a lot of trouble with it. I used to put it in the tank when I went away to save it being burnt or kicked. I kept it clothes as well as I could, as I have four children of my own and I am very poor. I have three miles to draw my water. I wrote to my brother several times about the child, but he never answered me.

This poor pioneer was fined twenty-five pounds, a rather large sum for the times, and the child was sent to the Willowburn Asylum. It is recorded there that he was an imbecile, 2ft 7ins high and weighing 1 stone 12 lbs on admission. He waxed fat and died there thirty five years later.

On the wall, by the stairs going to my flat were two framed portraits; one was of Dr A E McDonald a much loved medical superintendent who looked down with a stem, yet benevolent gaze, his sense of discipline augmented by the Army Officer's uniform in which he had posed. The other was a portrait of Dr R R Whishaw, an English gentleman tragically killed while working in the hospital. The story is of considerable interest.

On 9 December 1909 farmers on the Darling Downs sat down after the milking to read their "Toowoomba Chronicle" and learnt that the inmates at the Willowburn Asylum seldom injured the attendants, but one of them had hit the acting Medical Superintendent Dr R R Whishaw on the back of the head with a hose nozzle while he was doing a round of inspection that morning.

The story went on to describe the incident:
"The blow was no slight one, as it was the means of completely smashing in the unfortunate doctor's skull, and leaving a hole in which the first three fingers of a man's hand could be easily inserted. The blow felled him, and he never afterwards spoke. Two medico's were called and both recognised the serious nature of the injury to Dr Whishaw's head, and everything that was possible was done for him".

Meanwhile his assailant Sydney Coulter "made no resistance when secured and seemed to be thoroughly comprehensive of what he had done, in fact he fiendishly gloated over it. The lunatic was in his stockinged feet at the time. He stands over six foot high and is built in proportion".

A hose nozzle does not sound like a lethal weapon, but this one was used to wash down the verandas and was 21 inches long weighing four and a half pounds. Such a potentially dangerous implement was kept in the tailoring shop of the asylum when not in use and that is where Dr Whishaw met his death. It left the institution without a doctor for he was the only one there to look after 737 inmates at the time. The Superintendent had gone to Goodna, Queensland's major mental asylum, for they were also very short of staff; it was difficult to find doctors prepared to work with the mentally ill in those times, and had remained a perennial problem.

The Willowburn Asylum had changed its name, by the time I arrived there in 1953, to the Toowoomba Mental Hospital, but there was nothing about the place to suggest that it was a centre for treating the sick. It is now called the Baillie Henderson Hospital and still doesn't resemble a hospital, but it has been transformed into a hive of activity. The prison like buildings have been changed into fresh happy living quarters. Fish swim in tanks, birds chirp in their aviaries, well fed and contented cats loll around. All the fences have been pulled down and there is an enormous indoor heated swimming pool; it looks like a building in an American University which specialises in scholarships for swimmers during its vacation for no one was in the building. One sensed that it was too good for the patients, but it was a Sunday afternoon and perhaps they do swim there during the weekdays.

Baillie Henderson Hospital has a modem physiotherapy unit and another section for the occupational therapists -everything is called therapy these days even those doing the mending or collecting the garbage are involved in "work therapy". There is music therapy too where patients can use expensive hifi equipment to fracture the air with the cacophony of pop songs. There is even a set of drums for those who want to make their own noise; these rooms were also empty when I visited, but it was a Sunday afternoon. New buildings have been erected giving patients a sense of privacy and a standard of living few would have enjoyed in the outside world. There is a cafeteria where men and women line up for meals dressed in bright and varied colours, still not fitting very well.

But where are the old burnt out alcoholics? Making furniture in a special unit further up the hill. And the old fashioned crazy people? Swollen fat and living a sleepy existence under the influence of tranquilisers in small halfway houses where they live together in the community, like family units. But there are others neglected and forgotten sitting by themselves in cheap rooming houses or in the parks drinking with other derelicts or perhaps in prisons or geriatric homes, anywhere but the mental hospital. Asylums are now just a memory .