by Larry Smith
If you’ve ever been curious about the history of mental health in the Bahamas, pick up a copy of Dr John Spencer’s new book—From the Crazy Hill to Sandilands.
I should add that it’s not a history - although it includes a lot of historical background. And neither is it an autobiography - although it recounts personal stories.
The book records some of the experiences of a young doctor in the Bahamian health services half a century ago—first as a medical officer at the Princess Margaret Hospital and later as a psychiatrist at Sandilands.
Now in his 80s, John Spencer qualified as a physician in 1960 and married his high school sweetheart - Pat Denison - in their home town of Sheffield, England.
Within weeks they were in Nassau, after John was recruited by Chief Medical Officer E. H. Murcott. But in 1964 - at the PMH out patient department - he had an epiphany, after witnessing the arrival of 20 mental patients from Sandilands for routine chest x-rays.
"It was at this moment that I first became acutely aware of that unexplored and neglected branch of medicine called psychiatry,” he wrote. "As I helped each patient in front of the x-ray machine, I was suddenly possessed by an intense curiosity to know more about those who were afflicted by these strange illnesses.”
A few months later he left Nassau for postgraduate training in psychiatry at the University of Sheffield. He returned in 1969 to work with the legendary Dr Henry Podlewski at Sandilands Hospital.
Podlewski (who died last year at the age of 94) was a fascinating character and a true medical pioneer in the Bahamas. As a student in Warsaw, he experienced first-hand the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, which started the Second World War.
He and many others fled the country to join the free Polish forces led by General Władysław Sikorsky in France. Podlewski and other Polish troops were deployed to the Middle East, under French and later British command.
Later in the war, the Polish government-in-exile encouraged young professionals to finish their university training, and Podlewski ended up at the University of Edinburgh as the war came to an end, rooming with a friend named Stan Pogonoski.
After the war, Pogonoski’s English wife became secretary to Sir Robert Neville, who was then governor of the Bahamas. And in 1956 Pogonoski invited Henry to join him in Nassau.
This was a marvellously serendipitous event for the Bahamas. Podlewski was the first qualified psychiatrist ever to practice in the Bahamas. And he was instrumental in transforming mental health treatment in the country and planning the first psychiatric hospital out east.
Before 1956, disturbed patients were confined to a prison-like compound on a rise adjacent to the old Bahamas General hospital. At the time, it was a popular pastime to climb to the top of the water tower for a good view of the lunatics on the “Crazy Hill” below.
Another of Spencer’s psychiatric colleagues back in the day was Dr Tim McCartney, who wrote a popular book in the 1970s called Neuroses in the Sun. It contained his personal recollection of the Crazy Hill as a teenager, which Spencer repeats in his book.
“They were nearly always screaming, hurling obscenities, banging their heads against the bars, or pathetically shouting for help and imploring people to release them. Occasionally boys would throw rocks at them, egged on by amused onlookers.”
It was Podlewski who almost single-handedly changed all this - supervising the transfer of 140 ‘Crazy Hill’ patients to the new 200-bed Sandilands Hospital at Fox Hill. The move coincided with the advent of new drugs for mental illness, and the introduction of psychiatric training for local nurses.
According to Spencer, "Henry exercised great patience and skill to gradually transform the old asylum-style practices into a modern psychiatric service. He educated the public to regard patients as curable rather than lunatics who had to be locked up forever. He also played a major role in drafting new mental health legislation."
One of Spencer’s most intriguing tales about Sandilands features a delusional Haitian migrant who believed he was possessed by an evil spirit sent by a powerful zombie in Haiti.
in April 1971 something unusual happened — for no apparent reason his Haitian patient made a sudden overnight recovery, assuring everyone that something “very good” had happened.
Newspaper headlines the next day reported the death of President Francois Duvalier, or Papa Doc as he was called, at the relatively young age of 64. Duvalier had ruled Haiti for 14 years with the help of voodoo priests.
“He had actually died on the very day of Willie’s unexplained recovery,” Spencer wrote. "This was an incredible coincidence, and when I showed him the newspaper headlines, he grasped my hands and said: 'Oui, oui. I know. Very good, very good.'”
Spencer left The Bahamas just prior to Independence, and practised in Canada, France, England and Australia - where he eventually settled. He has published widely in medical journals and is the author of two books on psycho-social topics.
He contributed to the development of mental health services in rural areas of Western Australia and for indigenous communities. He has also been a hospital superintendent, director of the Western Australia Alcohol and Drug Committee, and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Western Australia.
Until recently, one of his three adult children - Matthew, who is a Bahamian - was a teacher at St Andrew’s School. He now works in Myanmar (Burma).
•From the Crazy Hill to Sandilands: Reflections & Memories of a Psychiatrist in The Bahamas, by Dr John Spencer. Published by Media Enterprises, 2016. 100 pages.