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William Tuke (1732-1822)

Asylum pioneer William Tuke was a tea and coffee merchant whose legacy came through social activism. He was born in York in 1732 in a Quaker family. Tuke became increasingly active as a Quaker in his thirties, and campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. A friend’s death in the York asylum in 1790 prompted Tuke to raise funds to establish a private Quaker asylum. In 1796 he founded and became Director of the York Retreat, a humane and religion-based sanctuary for Quakers with mental illness.

Unlike other asylums of the period, the York Retreat treated patients as people and took into account their basic needs and comforts. This approach became known as moral treatment. Tuke had a reputation among Quakers for stern self-discipline and high moral standards. Self-discipline became central to moral treatment, and asylum reformers of the time took Tuke’s approach as a model. Moral treatment became one of the most influential practices in European asylums of the 1800s. Tuke’s work influenced Philippe Pinel, a French physician famous for unchaining the mental patients of Paris.

Tuke continued his tea business and remained active in running the York Retreat. He also helped found several Quaker schools. His son and grandson directed the Retreat after his death and publicised Tuke’s methods in books. These books ensured his role in the origins of moral treatment is widely recognised.

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A Digby, Madness, Morality, and Medicine: a study of the York Retreat, 1796-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

S Tuke, Description of the Retreat: an institution near York, for insane persons of the Society of Friends, containing an account of its origin and progress, the modes of treatment, and a statement of cases (York: Printed for W. Alexander, 1813)