Tea and scandal: Art therapy at Asfuriyeh


… the Asfuriyeh Hospital for the Insane in Syria was opened on the
6th of August 1900.

So wrote its founder, Theophilus Waldmeier, to the secretary of the hospital board one week after the event.

The Lebanon Hospital for the Insane, located in Asfuriyeh (also spelt Asfouriyeh; Asfurieh), in fact comprised two hospitals, one for men and one for women, each with a capacity for 20 patients. Just seven days after opening the male hospital was at 50% capacity, the female 25%. So great was the need for mental health care in Lebanon that applications for admissions were received while the buildings were under construction – even patients themselves arrived seeking admission. Waldmeier reported that it was heartrending to have to refuse many.

The condition of the insane in this country comes now in mighty power before us. There are thousands of chronic miserable patients… who were once in an acute and curable condition but as there was no Asylum in the country, they got chronic and incurable through neglect, ignorance and cruel treatment.

At the time of its inception, Asfuriyeh aimed to remedy this neglect, not just with charitable goodwill, but professionally ‘in accordance with the most scientific methods for the Treatment of the Insane’. Dr O. Wolff, formerly a specialist in mental disease at the Munsterlingen Asylum in Switzerland, was appointed Medical Superintendent. In reading Asfuriyeh’s earliest annual reports, it seems that the hospital’s scientifically based treatments were intended to be medically sound, humane and broadly opposite those of prevailing local superstitions and abusive treatment – which reportedly often saw the mentally ill bound, chained, beaten or subjected to exorcism.

As time passed, more specific needs were addressed. Staff discovered very quickly that it was impossible to safely accommodate noisy or violent patients in its two main hospitals. In 1902, sufficient funds were provided to open a new ward to house acute male patients and in 1905 a similar ward was built for women.



Ties with Europe and the United States remained strong both professionally and economically with a long list of supporters from each continent published annually along with statements of the hospital’s activities and progress.

In 1902 Dr Wolff reported that the various forms of mental illness he encountered in Lebanon were not very different to those found in Europe (an observation echoed by his successor, Dr Thwarts) and that ‘many people are astonished that, if possible, I treat the patients with work.’ Some of the women were clever at needlework, others helped in the kitchen. The men assisted in the grounds of the hospital, either building or gardening. ‘This work suits them very well; also, some of the acute patients, who show but little prospect of entire recovery, can by this means be kept in a state which makes the able to do some work when they have left the Hospital.’



Fifty years later, Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders, as it become known, counted among its developments an Occupational Therapy Department and in the year 1950, Theophilus Waldmeier’s great nephew joined its staff.

As his wife, Ruth, observed shortly after their marriage, whatever else Charles Little might be, he was primarily an artist. He was initially taken on at Asfuriyeh to set up a ceramic studio with a view to adding pottery to the art therapies available to patients. By the March 1951, this had expanded to include a workshop for metal and woodwork as well as printmaking. With the assistance of the patients and hospital workers, Charles physically built the studios, constructed the kiln and fitted out the workshops. Once up and running, Charles provided tuition to patients and supervised access to the studios. In addition to providing therapeutic benefit and teaching new skills, it was thought that the programme might be developed into a cottage industry to help raise funds for the Hospital. In the early days, this was realised through printmaking with 600 printed cards being sold over the Christmas of 1950.



In addition to his work at the hospital, Charles kept up his own artwork and for Easter 1951 decided to reproduce as cards a series of ‘views’ he had created since arriving at Asfuriyeh. He first printed these views on fine paper within a letter to his wife and son – for their opinion, if not approval ­– as by the time he had written the accompanying text and posted the letter, the cards were completed and Easter long past. The images included throughout this article are scans from his letter, a snapshot of the Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders 1950–51, or at least of its landscape.




by Pat Little
9 December 2012

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