Alexander William Overbeck-Wright

Sebastian Broere

OVERBECK-WRIGHT, ALEXANDER WILLIAM (1879-1938), British psychiatrist, superintendent of the mental hospital in Agra, and visiting lecturer at King George’s Medical College in Lucknow and the Medical School in Agra. He is best known as the author of Mental Derangements in India (1912) and Lunacy in India (1921), the latter being a widely read standard reference work on psychiatry in British India.

Much of Overbeck-Wright’s personal life and career remains uncharted. He was born in St. Andrews in 1879 and obtained his M.B. Ch.B degree in 1901. Overbeck-Wright appears to have developed an interest early on in what was called “medical psychology” as he gained a Medico-Psychological Certificate after passing an examination at the Royal Asylum in Aberdeen in 1900. One year later he was recruited into the Indian Medical Service (IMS). It is unclear why Overbeck-Wright opted for a colonial medical career. For further training he was sent to Royal Victoria Hospital, at that time a large military hospital in Netley near Southampton. Before his departure for India, he served in British Somaliland between 1903 and 1904. Overbeck-Wright most likely arrived in India in 1905 and was shortly afterwards approved by the Director-General of the IMS as a specialist in mental science. In 1908, he went on a one-year leave and returned to the Royal Asylum in Aberdeen to study under the auspices of Dr. William Reid. In that year Overbeck-Wright received a diploma in Public Health from the University of Aberdeen. After his return to India, he was selected for temporary civil employment in the Jail Department at Dacca; three years later, he became the medical superintendent of Agra Asylum, succeeding Dr. A.W.R. Cochrane, who was granted leave of absence. Overbeck-Wright held this position for one year and subsequently, in 1916, obtained his MD degree. He retired from the IMS in 1934 and died, in unknown circumstances, four years later.

Mental Derangements in India. Their Symptoms and Treatment was published in Calcutta in 1912. At some three-hundred-fifty pages, the book was meant to be a handbook to the theory and practice of mental disease in India. Overbeck-Wright acknowledged in the book’s preface that the book made ‘no pretense of being anything but a compilation’. The author had consulted many other works, including writings by Indian medical superintendents Owen Berkeley-Hill and G.F.W. Ewens, and more internationally renowned psychiatrists like Emil Kraepelin and Charles Mercier. Throughout the book, the writer considered a wide range of topics such as the medical-legal aspects of colonial care for the insane, the causation and classification of insanity, physical derangements and general pathology, and the examination and treatment of patients.

Against the opinions of some of his peers, Overbeck-Wright maintained that the manifestation of mental disease in Europeans or Indians did not differ as greatly as a comparison between the composition in asylum populations in European countries and British India suggested. The cases one met with in Indian asylums were ‘on the whole more maniacal than those seen in English asylums,’ yet this was caused by a relatively fewer number of asylum beds in India, due to which only the most severe cases were admitted to Indian lunatic asylums (Mental Derangements in India, 103). According to Overbeck-Wright, mental disease in general was the result of hereditary predisposition and external factors such as a bacteriological invasion, stress, or a deficiency in the development of volition and self-control. Among Europeans and their descendants in hot climates, the prevalence of mental disease was higher than among the same races in colder environments. He therefore argued that if Europeans would emulate ‘the diet and customs of natives around them, such bodily and mental disturbances would be much less frequent’ (98). Overbeck-Wright likewise maintained that the new generation of more highly educated Indians was more susceptible to mental disease as they adopted ‘to a greater or lesser extent many European habits and customs […] on constitutions unsuited to them’ (98). Child marriage in Hindu communities was likewise a factor in the etiology of insanity as the vitality of the parents was deemed to have been lowered by premature sexual indulgence.

The author would repeat many of these ideas in his second book, Lunacy in India. Printed in London, and arguably provided with a more catchy title than its 1912 precursor, the book became a standard reference book on transcultural psychiatry in colonial and post-colonial India. With its acclaimed aim to improve the living conditions of India’s mentally ill, the book had three objectives: ‘to summarise the conditions of lunatics in India and the means available for treating them; to emphasise the importance of toxæmias as ætiological factors in the production of a very large proportion of such cases […]; [and] to place on record views which a wide and varied experience of the East, spread over some nineteen years, have given rise to, and which may perhaps be of interest to the psychiatric world’ (v). Interestingly, the author gave a culturally sensitive definition of insanity, arguing that a person may be called insane in case a disease or disorder of the nervous system effected beliefs and conduct that were relatively deviant as compared to the standards of that person’s nation, race, or caste. For that reason, Overbeck-Wright advised psychiatrists to learn all they could about the prejudices and customs of their patient’s caste (186).

Although both Mental Derangements in India and Lunacy in India have been studied to some detail, a systematic examination, contextualization, and comparison has yet to be conducted. For more information, see: Waltraud Ernst, Colonialism and Transnational Psychiatry: The Development of an Indian Mental Hospital in British India, c. 1925-1940 (London: Anthem Press, 2013).