The Cuckoo Nest

The Cuckoo Nest

Treatments and Conditions in Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, New Zealand.

The Gothic-themed architecture of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum makes the ideal setting for the brutal and shocking violations of human nature which occurred within the constraining walls of the ‘so- called’ sanctuary.  It was built in the late nineteenth century located in an isolated and eerie spot in New Zealand which was surrounded by a wall of forestation blocking the mentally handicapped residents from the rest of society and stripping them of their basic human rights.


cuckoo nest

Figure 1 Nurses in front of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum 1890

The horrors which occurred included many nineteenth century procedures compromising of the infamous lobotomy operation which consisted of removing or cutting the frontal lobes of the brain. This was the treatment for those deemed psychologically unstable.  A famous example of this is the author and schizophrenic, Janet Frame, who was in fact a patient at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. She narrowly escaped the cruel incapacitating practice that is lobotomy. Frame claimed, ‘It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life.’[1] In this statement she is referring to the success of her work which won her a literary prize, cancelling the lobotomy in the process. Although Frame was fortunate enough to escape this, others were not so lucky. For instance, former President John F. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary Kennedy underwent the cruel treatment in 1941 when she was only 23[2]. This left her incapacitated and unable to live a fulfilling life.

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Figure 2 shows a lobotomy operation which Janet Frame managed to avoid [3]

Another gruesome procedure of the Seacliff hellish asylum was the mutilation of sexual organs and carrying out of non consensual castration. The case study of ‘Annemarie [Anon]’ demonstrates this vile treatment, the ‘unsexing’ operation, which included the removal of fallopian tubes, ovaries and clitoris. The belief was that if patients were ‘unsexed’ it would lead to an improvement in behaviour, and in Annemarie’s case she was discharged six months after her treatment apparently ‘improved’. According to, men had improved behaviour in the asylum because they were required to take part in manual labour outside, whereas women suffered more because they were not allowed to go outside and this could be seen as a reflection of the outside world ‘housewife’ role.[4]

Electroconvulsive therapy was commonly used in mental asylums across the world, including in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on the famous author Ernest Hemmingway which resulted in intense changes of behaviour. Shortly after his operation Hemmingway took a gun and promptly shot himself in the head. Thus showing the depression and changes in personality it can lead to. Further evidence of changes in behaviour after treatments is the accidental lobotomy of Phineas Gage, a railway worker, who had a pole penetrate his skull while working. Friends and family was distraught to discover and commented on his change in behaviour and personality.

The asylum was notorious for not abiding to human rights, the treatment of patients could involve measures such as chaining, starvation, solitary confinement and even keeping them unclothed – both humiliating and unethical. In fact, the Seacliff Asylum became known after its confinement of patients lead to the loss of thirty seven lives. A building which was recently added to the gloomy towers of Seacliff caught fire in 1942 in a fatal accident. The safety procedures of the asylum were questioned when it was discovered that the thirty seven desperate women who died were locked inside the ward with no way of escaping.[5]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Sir Frederick Truby King made efforts to improve the conditions of Seacliff mental hospital. During his time as Medical Superintendent at Seacliff ‘from 1899 to 1921’[6]; he introduced various reforms into the asylum in attempt to improve the health of patients. Reforms included better diets for patients, and discipline for staff and improvements in the grounds. Furthermore he attempted to alter the style of treatment by introducing smaller and open wards which paved the way for future developments known as the villa system.

To sum up, the Seacliff mental asylum was demolished around 1960. Hopefully this has given you an insight into the monstrosities that plagued the asylum. The asylum is now privately owned.  This blog shows we should be grateful for the advancements that have been made in this field.


[1]  The Times (London, England), Friday, January 30, 2004; pg. 46; Issue 67985.

[2] Looking Back on an Ice-Pick Lobotomy That He Says Didn’t Touch His Soul, McGRATH, CHARLES. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 16 Nov 2005: E1.



[5] Seacliff fire kills 37-