Lady Ida Darwin and the ‘Cambridge Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded’ (2021)

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by Federico Soldani – 28th Dec 2021

Ida Darwin was a pioneer in what we refer to as social work, mental hygiene and mental health, sometimes seen as movements.

According to Wikipedia, accessed 28th December 2021 (emphasis and some links added in further quotes as well): “Ida, Lady Darwin (née Farrer; 7 November 1854 – 5 July 1946) was the wife of Horace Darwin [at one point Mayor of Cambridge, he was son of Charles and great-grandson of Erasmus Darwin, previously discussed in PsyPolitics about ‘Cannabis’, ed.], member of the Ladies Dining Society, and a co-founder in 1913 of the Central Association for the Care of the Mentally Defective (in 1921 renamed the Central Association for Mental Welfare). Darwin was born Emma Cecilia Farrer and took the name Ida from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’.”

She was the first child of Thomas Farrer, later Lord Farrer – a close friend of Charles Darwin, previously discussed in PsyPolitics about his ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’, 1872 – and she was also the great-granddaughter, on her mother’s side, of James Mackintosh, a Scottish doctor, jurist, philosopher, and politician who was active at the time of George III and the author of ‘Vindiciae Gallicae: A Defence of the French Revolution and its English Admirers’ (1791).

When in 1918 her husband Horace Darwin was knighted, Ida became Lady Darwin.

From ‘Horace Darwin’s shop : a history of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 1878 to 1968’ (Bristol: Hilger, 1987).

“Ida and Horace Darwin settled in Cambridge, where they lived at “The Orchards”, a 24-room mansion on Huntingdon Road. A full complement of servants gave Darwin the leisure to pursue activities outside the home. In 1883 she was a founding member of the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (CACG), an organisation that identified working-class girls who were deemed to be wayward or out of control and placed them in domestic service or sent them to training institutions for service, and that also ran recreational clubs for girls. She later joined the Ladies Dining Society.” According to Ann Kennedy Smith, “Invited speakers included Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who gave a talk on ‘The medical profession for women’ and Beatrice Webb [a founder of the London School of Economics, ed.] on ‘The expediency of regulating the conditions of women’s work’.”

From ‘Horace Darwin’s shop : a history of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 1878 to 1968’ (Bristol: Hilger, 1987).

Still according to Wikipedia, “Darwin was also on the committee of the Cambridge Charity Organisation Society and in 1908, in response to the recommendations of Royal Commission for the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded, together with Florence Ada Keynes [mother of economist John Maynard Keynes and later the second female Mayor of Cambridge, ed.] formed a sub-committee to enquire into the number of “defective” children in Borough schools. This sub-committee became the Cambridge Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded [1909, ed.] and members included the Mayor of Cambridge, the Regius Professor of Medicine and representatives from the Borough Education Committee, the Eastern Counties Asylum in Colchester and the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls. [Ida became chairman of the association, her husband Horace was on the committee and their daughter Ruth was Honorary Secretary, ed.]. The group campaigned for the passage of legislation that would put the recommendations of the Royal Commission into force and organised meetings and conferences. In 1912 the Association, jointly with Cambridge University Eugenics Society, held a meeting in the Guildhall, where Ellen Pinsent [mother of Lady Adrian, ed.] read a paper on ‘Mental Defect and its Social Dangers’.

According to Christ’s College, Cambridge, “It was during this time that Ida became interested in eugenics, and the fact that certain weaknesses seemed to run in families. In 1910 Ida gave a talk on ‘Inherited Pauperism’ at the Annual Meeting of the CACG. She was not averse to using her husband’s position and influence to promote the best interests of her causes:

“When Mrs (Lady from 1918) Darwin wanted action she called personally on the Mayor, the Chief Constable, or the Chairman of the bench. She continued to rely on the support of her husband and the extensive Darwin family network to further her aims…”

(Paulson-Ellis, C., ‘The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls, Social Work with Girls and Young Women in Cambridge 1883-1954’ : 2007)

Ida Darwin, from Darwin Archive Add 8904.4: 1282, Cambridge University Library.

“After the Mental Deficiency Act was passed in 1913 the Association merged with the Cambridgeshire Voluntary Association for the Care of the Mentally Defective, which had just been formed by the County Council. This organisation was affiliated to the Central Association for the Care of the Mentally Defective (later the Central Association for Mental Welfare). Darwin was a vice-president of the Central Association for Mental Welfare and as such was a signatory to a letter to The Times in 1929 calling for the segregation and supervision of existing defectives and an inquiry into the causes of mental deficiency:

“Since its formation in 1914 the Central Association for Mental Welfare has on numerous occasion drawn public attention to the social problem presented by mental deficiency and to the grave consequences and serious cost entailed by the presence of mental defectives in the community”.

Although Darwin reduced her public commitments following the death of her son in 1915, she maintained links with the Central Association for Mental Welfare until the end of her life.”

Again according to Kennedy Smith, “During the war years Ida read Freud and Jung and followed with interest Dr William Rivers’ accounts in the Lancet of a new ‘talking therapy’ to treat soldiers suffering from the condition then known as ‘shell shock’, now commonly referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ida was convinced that the ‘talking cure’ should be used more widely among the civilian population, and after the Armistice was signed she asked Dr Rivers and Dr Charles Myers to lend their support to her scheme to establish a special clinic where people could be treated for ‘early mental disorders’ without the stigma of staying in an asylum. In 1919 the first outpatients’ psychiatric clinic at Addenbrooke’s Hospital was opened, one of the first in the country.”

“Darwin died 5 July 1946 and is buried in Cambridge at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground along with her husband. She had an obituary in The Times, with a further note by Leslie Scott who described her as “one of the pioneers in this country in the field of social work”.

“When her interest and sympathy were awakened in the unhappy and hazardous lot of the mentally deficient, she worked quietly and unweariedly on their behalf, and she had no small share in bringing about the Act of 1913.”

(The Times, Digital Archive 1785-1985 – Obituaries)

The Ida Darwin Hospital, built in the 1960s on the Fulbourn Hospital [the main psychiatric hospital for Cambridge, ed.] site, was named in her honour. She also has an iris, Mrs Horace Darwin, named after her.”

As the website of Christ’s College, Cambridge reports “At a meeting of the Regional Board in 1963, the Chairman Lady Adrian [daughter of Ellen Pinsent and wife of Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine Lord Adrian, ed.] suggested that the new unit be named ‘The Ida Darwin Hospital. This was to be in recognition of Ida and her contemporaries who were a “…great influence on the framing of early legislation for the care and control of the mentally handicapped and were personally responsible for the formation of voluntary bodies for the welfare of the mentally handicapped in Cambridge.” (Programme for the Official Opening of the Ida Darwin Hospital, East Anglian Regional Hospital Board : Cambridgeshire County Archives).  Although residents were able to use the facilities from 1966 onwards, the Ida Darwin Hospital was officially opened in September 1970.”

The Ida Darwin Hospital site is now slowly closing down as the units are moving one by one to different sites.

The Central Association for Mental Welfare, of which Ida Darwin was vice-president, contributed to originate what is nowadays a major U.K. mental health charity called ‘MIND’.


Horace Darwin as Mayor of Cambridge (1896-1897).

Diagram of an apparatus built by Horace Darwin (under the instruction of Karl Pearson) for measuring reaction time. Horace Darwin – Wikipedia.

“HORACE DARWIN. Born 1851 Died 1928. Son of Charles Darwin. And in memory of his only son ERASMUS. Born Dec. 1881 who fell near Ypres April 1915. IDA DARWIN. Wife of Horace Darwin. Born 1854 Died 1946. Ascension Parish Burial GroundWikipedia. Photo from here.

Fulbourn, near Cambridge, in 2018 (photo by the author).


[In the photo at the top, Ida Darwin. Darwin Archive Add 8904.4: 1254, Cambridge University Library.]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "Lady Ida Darwin and the ‘Cambridge Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded’ (2021)," in PsyPolitics, December 28, 2021,

Last Updated on December 30, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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