An interview with Mary Medhurst

Formerly a staff member at Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital

Jennifer encountered Mary Medhurst, a retired GP, during her visit to the Radical Craft exhibition at Pallant House Gallery. Mary was sat engrossed in the film about the life of artist Angus McPhee. The two of them got chatting and Mary mentioned that she had worked at Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital during the time that Angus was a patient there. Intrigued to find out more, Jennifer and Harry invited Mary back to the gallery to share her memories of her time working at the institution.

Mary’s early medical career had included working in paediatrics, psychiatry and orthopaedics. She moved to Inverness shortly after marrying in 1954 and it was her experience in psychiatry that led to Mary taking a job at Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital.

At first Mary was working on a female psychiatric open ward with around thirty beds, ‘the patients were almost all what we called “religiously depressed” after a hysterectomy’ she explained ‘it was a syndrome I’ve never seen since.’ Mary worked in various wards across the hospital and encountered patients with many different conditions. It was a time when electroshock therapy was still in regular use but advances were being made in medicinal treatments. Largactil was one of the first of the drugs that treated schizophrenia, ‘It got more sophisticated as the years went on but it was a tremendous breakthrough.’ A lot of psychological conditions were not understood in the ways they are today and patients were often kept with little in the way of mental or physical stimulation, ‘There were two really big wards of chronic patients, sitting around a long ward, sitting around, wandering around. It’s humiliating to think of what we had to accept.’

As a woman, Mary looked after the female wards and male colleagues would have looked after the male wards, where Angus McPhee was a patient. Angus was in an open ward. He was allowed to roam the grounds where he would secretly weave and knit objects from grasses and other vegetation that he found. Mary had limited contact with male patients. ‘I knew there was this man who wondered, who had the freedom of the grounds – which were large and had bushes and shrubs. Nobody seemed concerned. I’m amazed that he didn’t just go AWOL. I didn’t know what wonderful work he did until I came to Pallant House. I was so impressed.’

Radical Craft: Alternative Ways of Making is currently touring the UK.

Oriel Davies Gallery, Powys 25 June  – 29 August 2016
Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend 10 September – 5 November 2016
20-21 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe 19 November 2016 – 28 January 2016
Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, Carlisle 11 February – 26 March 2017
The Barony Centre, West Kilbride 8 April – 10 June 2017
Aberystwyth Arts Centre 24 June – 2 September 2017
Walford Mill, Dorset 16 September – 12 November 2017

Click here for more information about this exhibition.