The violent history of brutal and intrusive procedures

Force feeding of people on hunger strike for political reasons was precipitated by the actions of some suffragettes, writes Meadhbh Murphy, UCD Archives

In July 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop, an artist, illustrator, and suffragette, was arrested for ‘obstruction’ and was incarcerated in Holloway Prison.

Having had her application to be treated as a political prisoner rejected by authorities on July 5, 1909, Ms Dunlop decided to refuse food and water until her demand was met. After four days, she was released.

This is the first instance of hunger strike taking place in relation to the suffragette movement. The reason it was instantly successful was because prison authorities did not know how to handle such a new and powerful political weapon.

Forcible feeding, or what would later be rebranded as ‘artificial feeding’, has been in use in asylums since the 1790s. But it had never before been used on an individual deemed to be a sane member of society. With Ms Dunlop’s actions, that was all about to change.

As a medical officer, physician, or surgeon practising in the early part of the 1900s, you may not have been called upon to force-feed an individual, but the instruments needed to do so were available to you though a variety of different medical instrument manufacturers.

By perusing their catalogues, you came across manacles, restraints, mouth gags and wedges, tubing, funnels, and even stomach pumps, which were used in varying degrees to carry out this procedure.

To begin with, the individual had to be restrained as struggling during such an intrusive procedure would only cause more damage, both physically and mentally. This could be done by using the brute force of a number of individuals or through the use of restraints.

Once the individual was securely restrained, the point of entry for the feeding tube would be either the nose or mouth. If the mouth was chosen, there were a variety of instruments at the physicians disposal to firstly open the individual’s mouth and then keep it open for the duration of the procedure.

This could be done with mouth gags and wedges which came in a number of different sizes for both adults and children. Some physicians designed medical instruments specifically for force-feeding.

Dr Henry Edmund Blandford did just that and his invention was accompanied by the wording:

Designed by Dr Henry Edmund Blandford for the purpose of facilitating the forcible feeding of the insane, and while it is not intended to supplant the use of the Oesophageal Tube, it will be found extremely useful in many cases where sufficient attendants are not at hand to avoid the dangers of the latter method. The wedge-like extremity of the tube allows forcible separation of the jaws when necessary.” (The Medical Annual 1897).

If the nasal route was chosen, this meant forcing the tubing up the individual’s nose, navigating down the back of the nasal passage into the throat and down into the stomach. The path the tubing took once inserted into either the nose or mouth was one of uncertainty. The physician may have to make several attempts to force the tubing into the stomach.

The irreparable internal damage this could cause to the circulatory, digestive, and nervous system would be immeasurable. The possibility of the tubing entering the lungs was quite high and would cause the individual to experience a drowning sensation.

All the time this procedure was taking place, the individual’s natural reaction was to struggle and resist, albeit unsuccessfully. The damage to the individual’s mental health and capacity cannot be underestimated.

To feel that, no matter how hard you fought, you would inevitably lose must have been a horrific experience. An internal physical reaction also often occurred whereby the stomach would naturally reject the tubing and could induce violent bouts of vomiting.

Once the tubing was deemed to be successfully inserted by the physician, the feeding could begin.

One method was to add a funnel to the end of the tubing, pour the food (consisting of milk, beaten eggs, and medicines) into the funnel and raise the funnel up to improve flow.

Another was through the use of an instrument that we would see today as doing the opposite to force feeding; the stomach pump. As shown in the illustration above, the stomach pump was used to pump food into the individual.

Feeding could last for a few minutes or a prolonged period, depending on the speed of ingestion as determined by the physician.

This procedure could be carried out several times a day depending on the volume of food taken in by the individual, after all the physician did not want to make martyrs of these individuals. When it was deemed that sufficient food had been ingested, the tubing was removed and the procedure was complete.

This all sounds very straightforward and, when writing about the variety of instruments used to forcible feed an individual, it is easy, or perhaps a necessity, to detach yourself from the human element of the procedure. But forcible feeding an individual was far from straightforward.

The human instinct to resist and struggle against such a brutal and intrusive procedure cannot be illustrated more vividly than by the words of suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline.

“When six women had got me on the bed, holding me by the ankles, knees and shoulders, the doctors came stealing in. They hadn’t the courage to show themselves until I was securely held. Somebody caught me by the head from behind and tied a sheet under my chin.

“I set my teeth like a vice and my breath came so quickly that I thought I should suffocate. I felt a man’s hand trying to force my mouth open. I felt a steel instrument being forced against my gums, where I had had two teeth out.

I fought against it with all my strength, but cutting its way into the flesh, it worked its way in, and then they turned the screw, which gradually forced my jaws apart. It felt as though I were having my teeth drawn.

“They then started to force the tube down my throat. I tightened the muscles and struggled with all my might. Presently they said ‘That’s all’ and dragged out the tube.

“It was quite a long time before I could get my breath. They left me on the bed exhausted and shaking with sobs” (Votes for Women, March 22, 1913).

- Further recommended reading: A History of Force Feeding, Hunger Strikes, Prisons and Medical Ethics, 1909-1974, by Ian Miller

More on this topic

Five prisons have not undergone inspection in 10 years, says Inspector

Prison authorities not giving 'sufficient attention' to circumstances around vulnerable inmate deaths

Families campaign to ensure killers stay in prison

Report into surveillance in prisons due out soon

More in this Section

How do you talk to children about murder?

Climate change proposals: Our survival depends on huge change

Tories choose Brexit over NI: True blues show true colours

Majella Moynihan was punished because we wanted her to be


Tracing the roots of folk and fairy lore behind everyday plants

More From The Irish Examiner