Shell Shock Films & Mentally Ill Smokers

The July 2012 issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences is now online. Included in this issue are two articles that tackle the history of mental health. The first article describes the work of Arthur Hurst who filmed soldiers suffering from shell shock post World War I. Further films by Hurst were used to convey the message that these soldiers could be “cured” with relative ease. The second mental health related article in this issue explores the relationship between mentally ill smokers and the tobacco industry, including efforts to cast smoking as an activity with positive effects for the mentally ill. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

War Neuroses and Arthur Hurst: A Pioneering Medical Film about the Treatment of Psychiatric Battle Casualties,” by Edgar Jones. The abstract reads,

From 1917 to 1918, Major Arthur Hurst filmed shell-shocked patients home from the war in France. Funded by the Medical Research Committee, and using Pathé cameramen, he recorded soldiers who suffered from intractable movement disorders as they underwent treatment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley and undertook programs of occupational therapy at Seale Hayne in Devon. As one of the earliest UK medical films, Hurst’s efforts may have drawn inspiration from the official documentary of the Battle of the Somme and films made in 1916 by French Army neurologists. Although initially motivated to make use of a novel medium to illustrate lectures, Hurst was alert to the wider appeal of the motion picture and saw an opportunity to position himself in the postwar medical hierarchy. Some “before treatment” shots were reenacted for the camera. Hurst, like some other shell shock doctors, openly used deception as a therapeutic measure. On the basis that the ends justified the means, they defended this procedure as ethical. Clinicians also took advantage of changes in military regulations to address functional symptoms. Claims made of “cures” in the film and associated publications by Hurst were challenged by other doctors treating shell shock. The absence of follow-up data and evidence from war pension files suggested that Hurst may have overstated the effectiveness of his methods. Nevertheless, the message conveyed in the film that chronic cases could be treated in a single session had a powerful resonance for ambitious or charismatic doctors and was revived in World War II.

“Scientific Research and Corporate Influence: Smoking, Mental Illness, and the Tobacco Industry,” by Laura Hirschbein. The abstract reads,

Mentally ill individuals have always smoked at high rates and continue to do so, despite public health efforts to encourage smoking cessation. In the last half century, the tobacco industry became interested in this connection, and conducted and supported psychiatric and basic science research on the mental health implications of smoking, long before most mental health professionals outside the industry investigated this issue. Initially, representatives of tobacco industry research organizations supported genetics and psychosomatic research to try to disprove findings that smoking causes lung cancer. Tobacco industry research leaders engaged with investigators because of shared priorities and interests in the brain effects of nicotine. By the 1980s, collaborative funding programs and individual company research and development teams engaged in intramural and extramural basic science studies on the neuropharmacology of nicotine. When mental health researchers outside the industry became interested in the issue of the mentally ill and smoking in the mid-1990s, they increasingly explained it in terms of a disease of nicotine addiction. Both the idea that smoking/nicotine does something positive for the mentally ill and the conclusion that it is the result of nicotine dependence have the potential to support corporate agendas (tobacco or pharmaceutical).

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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