History of Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, PTSD

Perhaps it is now too late to give as a holiday gift, but the fine blog Mind Hacks has just published a review of what sounds to be a most interesting book: War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists (Harvard, 2001), by the British journalist Ben Shephard. Although military psychology does not usually play a prominent roll in the history of psychology (apart, perhaps, from the intelligence testing of American conscripts during World War I), this book argues that it was the phenomenon of what was then known as “shell shock” during World War I that made physicians rethink their exclusively neurological view of the mind. Soldiers who had experienced no detectable neurological trauma during battle were found to be suffering not only enormous mental anguish, but physical symptoms, such as paralysis, blindness, and uncontrollable shaking. It was the psychological stress of battle itself that appeared to be causing these symptoms, and thus the mind began to come into focus as real object of study.

This was clearly demonstrated when a ‘gas shock’ syndrome emerged during World War I when gas attacks became more frequent.

Like ‘shell shock’, it arose from a combination of extreme stress and was shaped by expectation and fear (the descriptions of death by mustard gas are truly horrifying) even when no gas injury could be detected….

The military managed (and still manage) these forms of combat stress reactions by rest (stress and fatigue play a great part) but also by managing expectations.

The book follows the history of this condition, and psychiatrists’ attempts to identify and treat it through World War II (when it was known as battle fatigue) and the Viet Nam War (where it morphed into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

At my Classics in the History of Psychology website, you can find an important book on the topic of WWI shell shock by the famed English psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers (1920), Instinct and the unconscious: A contribution to a biological theory of the psycho-neuroses.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

One thought on “History of Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, PTSD

  1. I’m enjoying your blogs, noticing in your “Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, PTSD” piece that you state:
    “… Although military psychology does not usually play a prominent roll in the history of psychology (apart, perhaps, from the intelligence testing of American conscripts during World War I), …”

    As it happens, this archives holds primary & other materials that, if researched and reported, would reveal a more prominent role taken by Canadian psychologists and related disciplines, who had liaison with their U.S. counterparts, in that history during WW2. Specifically, they developed and tested scientific initiatives for Cdn. Military personnel selection, aimed both at avoiding those unsuitable (“shell shock” risks, etc.), and improving the placement/ assignments of those deemed suitable and selected for recruitment, through psychological testing.

    In Canada this work took place under the auspices of Toronto psychiatrist & Maj. Gen. Brock Chisholm, headed up by U. of T. and pre-CMHA professionals Col. William Line (psychologist), Lt. Col. Jack Griffin (psychologist and psychiatrist), and sociologist (later a York founder) Capt. Jack Seeley, who died on Dec. 16th — pls see U. of T’s announcement of his passing:-



    John P.M. Court, Archivist
    Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
    Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto
    Associated Scholar, Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science and Technology

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