Sunday, 21 June 2015

Did Louis Wain's Cat make him Mentally Ill?

Louis' Wain
Cat artist
In the 1900’s the work of artist Louis Wain was as popular as ‘Wallace and Gromit’ are today. Louis drew cat caricatures; anthropomorphosised creatures with huge staring eyes.
“Louis Wain invented a cat style, a cat society and a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.” 
H G Wells.
Demand for his work was insatiable; guaranteed to sell any calendar, card or magazine in which it appeared. Cat lover Louis doted on his pets and it was his favourite black and white moggie Peter that inspired his style. However Louis’ success dwindled with a slide into mental illness and the artist ended his days penniless in Bedlam.
A timeline of Louis' work
Showing the increasingly disturbed nature of his art
as he descended into mental illness
In the 1950’s scientists postulated that Louis Wain had suffered from brain cysts caused by a toxoplasmosis infection and pointed the finger at the very cats that were his inspiration.
Toxoplasma is a tiny parasite, in fact it’s made up of a single cell. Cat owners, especially pregnant women should be aware of the parasite, because it can cause birth abnormalities in the unborn child (through contact with infected cat feces).

However the link between toxoplasmosis (infection with toxoplasma) with brain symptoms has largely been overlooked, but Louis’ history raises the question of whether indeed his is a case history of brain infection with Toxoplasma.
Louis Wain at his drawing table - with cat - in 1890
Toxoplasmosis and mental illness
Louis illness manifested itself as erratic behaviour increasingly violent paranoia and agitation. Where as once he had been a gentle, caring man who had nursed his sick wife, he became suspicious of everything and everyone around him; even shouting at a flickering cinema screen for stealing the electricity from his brain.

            Studies in the 1990’s (Flegar et al, Lindova et al.) point to chronic infection in people causing subtle behavioural changes, such as slower reaction times and having more car accidents. Holliman’s study of rodents found infected mice had changed behaviour. They had higher dopamine levels; a neurotransmitter associated with novelty seeking and neurotic behaviour. This disinhibited their fear of cat odour and they behaved erractically. Post mortem analysis showed the amgydala to be the most likely site of toxoplasmid cysts, this part of the brain governs social behaviour and emotion, the implication being that brain cysts in humans could indeed present as mental instability and erratic behaviour.

A 2008 study in America surveyed schizophrenic patients and found them to be 25% more likely to test seropositive for toxoplasma than the general population. The significance of this data remains unclear and is currently under further investigation.

Perhaps it is too simple to suggest that toxoplasmid cysts were the sole cause of Louis’ mental illness, but more likely a contributing factor. How likely is it then that his beloved cats were the source of infection?

Did ‘Peter the cat’ infect Louis Wain?
            To find an answer lets consider contemporary studies into cat ownership and incidence of toxoplasma infection.

            Two American studies looking at cat-owning pregnant women and HIV patients, found no statistical link between cat ownership and positive toxoplasma serology.

Zoonosis occurs under certain conditions; namely ingesting sporozoites that have had 24 hours to develop from oocysts in cat faeces. Stroking the cat is an unlikely source of infection since most are too fastidious to let faecal contamination persist for long. In addition cats only shed oocysts for a limited time after eating their first infected mouse, and repeat shedding is rare, even in immunocompromised cats.  Theoretically there is just a small window of a few weeks after the cat eats his first diseased rodent when his master is at risk from sporozoites in that animal’s faeces.

So whilst not wishing to belittle the very real danger of infection from a cat, especially to pregnant women, the risk from a pet maybe lower than perceived and sporozoites in contaminated soil is a far greater source of possible infection. (Obviously no risk is worth taking for a foetus in the womb and so advice must always remain that pregnant women do not empty litter trays and wear gloves for gardening.)

Other sources of Infection.
Apart from cat faeces other sources of infections are contaminated soil and water, and raw or undercooked meat.

A Canadian study (Phillips, 1998) showed an alarming 25% of fresh commercial pork and lamb contained microscopic toxoplasmid cysts. If this was the case in the 20th century with modern meat inspection, how much higher the infection rate in Victorian / Edwardian times? It must have been common for cattle and sheep grazing infected pasture to ingest oocysts, form bradyzoites in their muscle and the contaminated meat enter the human food chain.

Could it be that Louis Wain’s wife Emily, who he nursed faithfully through her final illness, served her husband undercooked meat? Could she unwittingly have left her husband a legacy that triggered his descent into mental illness? Was ‘Peter the cat’ innocent after all?

“To him [Peter] properly belongs the foundation of my career.” Louis Wain.

What became of Louis Wain?
            Unkempt and confused Louis was found wandering the streets of London. An admirer of his work, Mrs Chesterton, started a campaign to raise money and save the once popular artist from destitution. Two hundred and thirty eight pounds was raised by the public, which was sufficient to buy Louis a bed at the ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital,’ also known as ‘Bedlam,’ (after the noise made by the in-patients.) so he could end his days with dignity.

            As an aside it was here a century earlier, that one Doctor William Battie made his name. Unlike his contempories Dc Battie believed mental illness could be treated and it is from the good doctor that the slang term ‘batty’ (for a mad idea) was derived.

“The whole of Great Britain and Ireland have combined to help us… relieve the famous cat artist.”
The Daily Graphic.


  1. This was such a sad post! He was a marvelous artist, for sure. His cat paintings are delightful. How sad to think his cat caused his problem. But the other point you raised sure made me glad I'm a vegetarian!

  2. I LOVE our cat and I also really enjoy Wain's art. A true genius, we could do with more like him!


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