Ambition, ‘failure’ and the laboratory: Birmingham as a centre of twentieth-century British scientific psychiatry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

161 Downloads (Pure)


This article will reveal how local scientific determination and ambition, in the face of rejection by funders, navigated a path to success and to influence in national policy and international medicine. It will demonstrate that Birmingham, England’s ‘second city’, was the key centre for cutting-edge biological psychiatry in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. The ambitions of Frederick Mott – doyen of biochemistry, neuropathology and neuropsychiatry, until now celebrated as a London figure – to revolutionize psychiatric treatment through science, chimed with those of the City and University of Birmingham’s Joint Board of Research for Mental Diseases. Under Mott’s direction, shaped by place and inter-professional working, the board’s collaborators included psychiatrist Thomas Chivers Graves and world-renowned physiologist J.S. Haldane. However, starved of external money and therefore fresh ideas, as well as oversight, the ‘groupthink’ that emerged created the classic UK focal sepsis theory which, it was widely believed, would yield a cure for mental illness – a cure that never materialized. By tracing the venture’s growth, accomplishments and contemporary potential for biochemical, bacterial and therapeutic discoveries – as well as its links with scientist and key government adviser Solly Zuckerman – this article illustrates how ‘failure’ and its ahistorical assessment fundamentally obscure past importance, neglect the early promise offered by later unsuccessful science, and can even hide questionable research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-40
Number of pages20
JournalThe British Journal for the History of Science
Issue number1
Early online date17 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • science, failure, asylum, biological psychiatry, neuropathology, focal sepsis, Sir Frederick Mott, J. S. Haldane, Thomas Chivers Graves, Frank Pickworth, Solly Zuckerman, University of Birmingham, Hollymoor, biochemical, endocrine, metabolic, bacterial

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Ambition, ‘failure’ and the laboratory: Birmingham as a centre of twentieth-century British scientific psychiatry'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this