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Histories from the Asylum: 'The Unknown Patient'

When the Soldiers Return: November 2007 Conference Proceedings

Abstract: The bodies of over 25,000 of the 60,000 Australians who were killed during the First World War were either unidentified or unidentifiable. The grief of families of the 'missing' was intensified by the lack of certainty regarding their fate. Even into the 1920s, many families clung to the slim hope that perhaps a mistake had been made and their son, brother or husband might still be alive, yet unable to find his way home. The closed psychiatric files of Sydney's Callan Park Mental Hospital have revealed a soldier whose family was informed in 1916 that he was missing, presumed killed, but who 'came back from the dead' in 1928. Unable to identify himself when found wandering and incoherent on the Western Front, he was returned to Sydney and committed to Callan Park for treatment. He was referred to as 'The Unknown Patient'. After twelve years at the asylum, he was finally identified and reunited with his mother, who had never given up hope that her son somehow may have survived the war. Using New South Wales Department of Health archival files, this paper examines the power of grief and memory and the social impact of war through the lens of the story of this Unknown Patient and explores the realities of life within the asylum walls during the 1920s.

To cite this article: Hawksley, Jen. Histories from the Asylum: 'The Unknown Patient' [online]. In: Crotty, Martin (Editor). When the Soldiers Return: November 2007 Conference Proceedings. Brisbane: University of Queensland, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, 2009: 121-130. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=724704504673800;res=IELHSS> ISBN: 9781864999273. [cited 07 Dec 16].

Personal Author: Hawksley, Jen; Source: In: Crotty, Martin (Editor). When the Soldiers Return: November 2007 Conference Proceedings. Brisbane: University of Queensland, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, 2009: 121-130. Document Type: Conference Paper, Research ISBN: 9781864999273 Subject: Grief; Bereavement--Psychological aspects; Repatriation of war dead; Soldiers' bodies, Disposition of; Peer Reviewed: Yes Affiliation: (1) University of Wollongong

Database: Humanities & Social Sciences Collection