Tag Archives: Bulletin of the History of Medicine

““The Weight of Perhaps Ten or a Dozen Human Lives”: Suicide, Accountability, and the Life-Saving Technologies of the Asylum”

A recent article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine may be of interest to AHP readers. Exploring the happenings at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, Kathleen Brain describes how the antebellum asylum asserted ownership over the prevention of suicide and the ramifications of this claim. Full details below.

““The Weight of Perhaps Ten or a Dozen Human Lives”: Suicide, Accountability, and the Life-Saving Technologies of the Asylum,” by Kathleen M. Brian. The abstract reads,

By accounting for the law’s productive capacity to structure asylum physicians’ encounters with suicide, this essay argues that the antebellum asylum was a technology for the preservation of life. The essay first shows how suicide’s history as a crime encouraged popular attributions of suicide to insanity. What began as a tactic to protect survivors, however, ended by bolstering the professional claims of asylum medicine. Initially it appeared there was much to gain from claiming suicide as their own, but dominion over prevention in fact rendered asylum physicians and their staffs vulnerable in unanticipated ways: for while agents of suicide were effectively evacuated of legal responsibility, a variety of laws made physicians more accountable than ever. Focusing on medical superintendent Amariah Brigham and his staff at the New York State Lunatic Asylum shows how the anxiety of assuming guardianship over the suicidal created networks of accountability that profoundly affected daily life.

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Twentieth Century American Psychiatry in BoHM

The winter issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine has just been released online. Included in this issue are two articles on the history of psychiatry in the twentieth century United States.

The first of these articles, by Laura D. Hirshbein, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, investigates the diagnostic category of involutional melancholia. Ascribed to post-menopausal women with depressive symptoms and particular personality traits, this diagnosis was incorporated into the more general diagnosis of major depressive disorder in the latter half of the twentieth century. The social and medical circumstances surrounding involutional melancholia’s emergence and eventual disappearance are charted in Hirshbein’s article.

In the second of these articles, Dennis Doyle, of Mississippi State University, documents the existence of a Harlem psychiatric facility in the late 1940s and 1950s. The article looks at the Lafargue Clinic, named after the french Marxist Paul Lafargue (pictured at right), and documents the diagnostic decisions undertaken at this interracial clinic. Continue reading Twentieth Century American Psychiatry in BoHM

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