Nugent, Sir John (1806–99), inspector of lunacy, was born in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, son of John Nugent, gentleman; no other details of his family are known. He was educated at Clongowes Wood College (1816–21) before entering TCD; he graduated BA (1827) and MB (1830) (Dubl.) and was admitted LRCSI (1830). He was appointed travelling physician to Daniel O'Connell (qv), and with him was an original member (1836) of the Reform Club, London.
In 1847 he was appointed 'inspector of lunacy', and joined Francis White (qv) (1787–1859), the first inspector (appointed the previous year), with responsibility for inspecting and reporting on all aspects of asylums and other institutions caring for the insane. They generated the dominant influence on the evolution of the system, and supported medical rather than lay management of asylums; by 1859 only one asylum remained under lay control. They encouraged the development of moral values, emphasising kindness and comfort as the most effective therapy for the mentally ill rather than a system based on physical restraint and fear; during the 1850s the appointment of chaplains was secured in most district asylums. On White's retirement (1857) Nugent became the predominant figure in asylum administration, and was joined by George William Hatchell (d. 1889).
Their task was enormous: several new asylums were opened and by 1889 they were supervising over 16,000 patients in twenty-two district asylums, twenty-four private asylums, and one criminal asylum, as well as the mentally ill patients in the 161 workhouses. They were responsible for the planning and construction of district asylums and for inspecting and reporting on the management and care of patients, and were ex officio members of all the governing boards from 1853 to 1861. Nugent, a mundane if energetic administrator, was often mildly critical in his reports, but readily turned a blind eye to the inactivity of governors; he was reluctant to criticise medical colleagues and remarkably complacent of the poor conditions in asylums. In his report in 1857 he regarded the asylums ‘with unmixed satisfaction’ and defended any shortcomings on the grounds that their inmates, mostly ‘strangers to the decencies of civilisation’ (Reynolds, 99), were saved from destitution.
In 1858 the first major inquiry (the royal commission into the state of asylums for the mentally ill) presented a horrifying picture at variance with inspectors' and governors' reports. It pointed to inadequate heating and sanitary arrangements, cheerless accommodation, lack of activity provided for inmates, and excessive use of restraint; it recommended reduced powers for inspectors, on the grounds that their wide-ranging administrative duties and membership of governing boards of asylums compromised their inspectorial role. Nugent, on this and subsequent occasions, survived virtually unscathed; always ready to defend his department, he immediately circulated a report, Observations on the report of the commissioners of enquiry into lunatic asylums . . . (1858), attacking the findings. The system remained virtually unchanged, though the membership of the inspectors on asylum boards was discontinued.
From the 1870s there was growing dissatisfaction with the inspectorate for its general incompetence: inspectors were accused of being more interested in the minutiae of finances than in the treatment and the life and death of patients; accused of negligence in exposing abuses; and blamed for the frequent disputes between inspectors, boards of governors, and superintendents of asylums, which led to charges of Nugent's ‘despotic officialism’ (‘The government of Irish district lunatic asylums’, Medical Press and Circular, lxviii (27 May 1874), 449). The inquiries of 1876, 1881, 1883, and 1885 into the asylum system, and into individual asylums, were all critical of the inspectorate and recommended a reduction in its administrative duties. Nugent effectively protested against the recommendations, which were largely ignored. He finally retired with a knighthood (1890) having previously refused to do so until he was granted a full salary. In 1891 the new inspectorate reported degeneration throughout the asylum system. Nugent was subsequently the subject of withering obituaries, the Journal of Mental Science spoke of his ‘spirit of wanton rashness and . . . a perfectly pithecoid love of mischief’ (1899, p. 431), and the Medical Press and Circular accused him of being a ‘thorough autocrat and not particular about the means by which he achieved his ends’ (1899, pp. 127–8). He was a member of the Medical and Psychological Association, London, and of the revived Medical and Philosophical Society, Dublin.
He acquired a valuable collection of proof engravings, and was well known, genial, and a lively conversationalist. He lived at 14 Rutland Square (later Parnell Square) East, Dublin, died 26 January 1899 at St George's Club, Hanover Square, London, and was buried at St Mary's cemetery, Kensal Green, London. His estate was valued at £38,000. His wife (name unknown) predeceased him; their eldest son, John Nugent (1843–1900), served in the Indian civil service and was a member of the council of Bombay.