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Forcible feeding and the Cat and Mouse Act: one hundred years on

By Ian Miller

Between 1909 and 1914, imprisoned militant suffragettes undertook hunger strikes across Britain and Ireland. Public distaste for the practice of forcible feeding ultimately led to the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, or ‘the Cat and Mouse Act’ as it was more commonly known. The 25th of April 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of this Act, passed so that prison medical officers could discharge hunger-striking suffragettes from prisons if they fell ill from hunger.

“Torturing Women in Prison. Vote Against the Government.”  London: National Women’s Social and Political Union, ca. 1909.  Color Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (117b)

My research revealed that contrasting perspectives existed on the purpose of forcible feeding: whether it was a therapeutic or coercive practice. The Home Office insisted that prison doctors performing the practice were preserving the life of prisoners who would otherwise starve. According to this perspective, forcible feeding was safe, humane, and ethically uncomplicated. In response, enraged suffragettes filled the pages of their newspaper Votes for Women with contradictory medical testimony claiming that forcible feeding risked producing an array of complaints including throat laceration, stomach damage, heart complaints, syncope, and septic pneumonia should food accidentally enter the lungs.

Medical opposition was rife. Suffragette doctor Louisa Garrett Anderson publicly insisted that forcible feeding was coercive. Physiologist Charles Mansell-Moullin asserted that ‘violence and brutality have no place in hospital’. Psychiatrist Lyttelton Forbes Winslow stated that so many risks were proven to accompany artificial feeding in clinical practice that he had long since abandoned the method, adding details of one case where the patient had allegedly bitten off his own tongue after it had become twisted behind the feeding tube.

The suffragettes left a rich array of autobiographical and printed resources which detail their problematic encounters with Edwardian prison doctors. For instance, in 1909, Laura Ainsworth wrote of her painful feeding through her nostrils with a tube. In addition, she described an alternative procedure which involved the prison medical officers pinning her down, her mouth being prised open with a steel instrument, and the insertion of a tube into her gullet which caused choking and intense nausea. Ainsworth continued to be fed twice daily in this manner until she was eventually moved to a hospital to be fed with a feeding cup. The following year, another female prisoner recalled how she had once overheard her doctor exclaiming that ‘this is like stuffing a turkey for Christmas’.

Artist/Photographer/Maker, Women’s Social and Political Union, David Allen. Date, 1914. Museum of London. Image Number 004152.

Between 1909 and 1914, opponents of forcible feeding strove to decisively prove its physical and psychological consequences. They raised fascinating ethical questions: did forcible feeding have adverse psychological effects? Did it cause illness or simply hasten pre-existing conditions? And was it ethically appropriate to forcibly feed mentally ill individuals? A particularly provocative case which I discovered was that of William Ball, subject to the procedure from Christmas Day 1911. By February, Ball believed that he was being tormented by electricity. Although his imaginary fears of electrical torture subsided, he began smashing his prison windows under a false illusion that a detective was waiting outside for him. Some weeks later, Ball announced to his prison officials that he no longer minded his electrical torture so much but objected vehemently to the needle torture that he was now being subjected to. In June 1912, Emily Davison threw herself on to the wire netting on the prison landing, and then dramatically flung herself through a gap in the netting, crashing onto a set of stone stairs. Davison later recounted this attempted act of suicide as resulting directly from the horrors of being forcibly fed.

Efforts to prove the harmful physical and psychological effects of forcible feeding became ever more refined following Ball’s case. In 1912, dermatologist Agnes Savill, Mansell-Moullin, and surgeon Victor Horsley published an extensive report intended to pressure the government into reassessing its policy. They delivered an extensive account of the physical and mental implications of forcible feeding that detailed a range of physical and emotional effects including cerebro-spinal neurasthenia and exaggerated knee reflexes and fatigue. The authors also identified the mental anguish produced by hearing the cries, choking, and struggles of their friends as psychologically damaging.

Pankhurst, Emmeline (1911). The Suffragette. New York: Sturgis & Walton Company. p. 433.

The issue of feeding patients who suffered from physical or mental debility also captured public attention. During 1913, the Home Office came to believe that militant suffragettes were encouraging “abnormal and neurotic” individuals to become imprisoned to increase the likelihood of martyrdom. It feared that militants were being specially selected to commit punishable crimes who were “weaklings suffering from physical defects in order to cause as much embarrassment as possible to the authorities.” Types believed to have been chosen ranged from people with histories of fits, those who had suffered a nervous breakdown, the “mentally unstable” and the “eccentric.” Margaret James was noted to be “a dwarf, an epileptic, and a cripple, and in weak physical condition.” Her medical officers feared that, if forcibly fed, epilepsy and mental excitement might ensue, firmly tipping James over the borderline to insanity. Royal assent was given to the Cat and Mouse Act on 25 April 1913 in response to public unease about, and medical opposition to, forcible feeding.

Ian Miller is a Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin. He is the author of “‘A Prostitution of the Profession’? Forcible Feeding, Prison Doctors, Suffrage and the British State, 1909–1914” in the latest issue of Social History of Medicine, which is available to read for free for a limited time. His first monograph, A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950 was published by Pickering and Chatto in 2011. A second monograph, Reforming Food in Post-Famine Ireland: Medicine, Science and Improvement, 1845-1922, is in press with Manchester University Press. Read his food history blog Digesting the Medical Past and follow him on Twitter @IanMill33234498.

Social History of Medicine is concerned with all aspects of health, illness, and medical treatment in the past. It is committed to publishing work on the social history of medicine from a variety of disciplines. The journal offers its readers substantive and lively articles on a variety of themes, critical assessments of archives and sources, conference reports, up-to-date information on research in progress, a discussion point on topics of current controversy and concern, review articles, and wide-ranging book reviews.

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Recent Comments

  1. CR

    “Royal assent was given to the Cat and Mouse Act on 25 April 2013.”

    Unless you’re being hopeful about the US, I believe you mean 1913.

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