Bergen goes its own way
Heiberg and Wisbech were not the only ones to have visited the new curative institutions on the Continent. Some years earlier, Fredrik Holst (1799 – 1871), city medical officer in Christiania and later professor, had investigated how «care for the insane» was arranged abroad. After his return home, he succeeded in persuading the government in 1825 to appoint a commission to investigate the conditions for the insane nationwide.
Holst and Heiberg generally shared the new view on the phenomenon of madness and claimed that many of the insane could be cured in new institutions. They were both imbued with the same optimism regarding what could be achieved by medically managed efforts, and they had seen the same innovations during their travels abroad. Their positions differed, however: Heiberg was medically responsible for a local project in what was still the country’s largest city, Bergen, while Holst was a member of a government-appointed commission in the capital aiming to establish a new national network of curative institutions.
Frederik Holst earned his exalted role in the history of Norwegian psychiatry as Major’s precursor – as the man who prepared the ground for the great achievements that Major later would complete
(10) – (12). Recent literature points out major differences in their reform projects, but this is not the crucial issue in our context (13). The report and grandly designed plan of the Holst Commission, to build four curative institutions under the auspices of the government, was available in 1827, but the matter was never deliberated by the Storting. The work of the commission did not produce any immediate result, and not a single building was erected.
The development in Bergen contrasts sharply with the collapse of Holst’s nationwide project. On the penultimate day of 1826, without even waiting for the Storting’s deliberation of Holst’s plan, the Bergen hospital committee unanimously decided to build a new curative institution in the city
How could Bergen Hospital find the means to build a new institution for the treatment and cure of the insane when Holst and the government-appointed commission could not even succeed in having the substance of their proposal deliberated by the Storting? How could a provincial city assume responsibility for such a project when the government found itself unable to build even a single institution? The answer is as simple as it is surprising: In Bergen, there were funds to spare in the hospital’s budgets.
The reason for the relative wealth at the hospital in Bergen lay in a scheme particular to the city. The hospital had been established as a separate foundation. To fund its operations, it had received a proportion of the so-called «dredging money». All ships that docked in Bergen had to pay a fee to the city’s dredging services. This was a highly lucrative deal – in 1825, the hospital was owed nearly 10 000 «spesidaler» [old silver coins] by the city’s coffers. The hospital was thus enabled alone to finance the construction of a new institution for the city’s mentally ill. This task fell to the hospital, because the madhouse had been placed administratively under the hospital in 1762.
As noted above, the plan was to build a new, but not qualitatively different, madhouse – and if Hallager had not met an early death, this would have been the likely outcome. However, with the appointment of the recently returned Heiberg and his recently imported knowledge about and enthusiasm for the «mental science of medicine» and the European asylum movement, the project was fundamentally altered. As a result, a dedicated curative psychiatric institution, called Bergen Mental Hospital, could open on 1 August 1833.
This totally fails to fit into the established narrative about the development of Norwegian psychiatry and the emergence of the asylums. It has been assumed that the European asylum movement obtained a real and concrete presence in Norway only with Major, the Insanity Act and Gaustad Hospital – so we have been told repeatedly by historians, psychiatrists and others
(5, 10) – (12). In such a narrative, Mentalen is an anomaly. It was planned and constructed with the explicit objective of being a curative building, i.e. the key ambition of the emerging psychiatric discipline – the very characteristic of having moved from the dark past to the brightness of the future. Thus, in a certain sense and in principle, we could have elevated Mentalen, not Gaustad Hospital, to the status of being Norway’s first real psychiatric asylum.
However, neither historians nor contemporary reformers in Christiania such as Major have regarded Mentalen as an asylum. Nor would the people of Bergen retain their conviction when it was challenged.
After remaining almost static in the first half of the 1800s, the population of Bergen grew rapidly, especially from the 1870s onwards. A new asylum, the Neevengaarden, was completed in 1891. Here we can see the city’s central area from the fish market towards Torgalmenningen square on a postcard from 1890. All the buildings portrayed were lost in the great fire of 1916. Photographer unknown. From the postcard collection of Bergen University Library