HoP in Social History of Medicine

The April 2010 issue of Social History of Medicine contains a number of articles on topics related to the history of psychology and the history of psychiatry. These include pieces on insanity and the right to marry in nineteenth century England, concerns surrounding mentally unfit soldiers during World War Two, and the importance of an individual’s capacity to work to psychosurgery practices in the early twentieth century. A further article explores the psychiatric classifications of criminals in New York State in the first half of the twentieth century (by Stephen Garton, right). Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Capacity to Marry: Law, Medicine and Conceptions of Insanity,” by Ezra Hasson. The abstract reads,

Historically, English law has not constructed insanity as intrinsic to the individual, but rather as something to be determined by his or her abilities within the context of a particular situation. The courtroom provides the most visible forum within which the discourses of law and medicine interact, and yet the civil law context has been left largely unexamined by historians of madness. This paper seeks to begin to address that gap, through an examination of court cases determining competency in marriage. Using primarily nineteenth-century cases—claiming nullity of marriage on the basis that one party was insane and thus unable to give valid consent to the marriage contract—it explores how this ‘compartment’ of insanity is conceptualised.

“Criminal Propensities: Psychiatry, Classification and Imprisonment in New York State 1916–1940,” by Stephen Garton. The abstract reads,

This article investigates the introduction of psychiatric classification into the New York penitentiary system from 1916 (when the first clinic was established) till 1940. It focuses on the growing influence of theories of psychopathology and personality disorder in the understanding of criminality and maps their impact by a close reading of individual case files. In doing so it argues that, while the language of psychiatry held powerful sway on parole board decisions, psychiatric diagnosis itself was heavily dependent on older technologies of social investigation arising out of practices of urban surveillance and social case work. Thus psychiatry had a significant influence within the penitentiary system but that influence was contingent upon the success of social analysis not psychiatric theory.

“Useless Soldiers: The Dilemma of Discharging Mentally Unfit Soldiers during the Second World War,” by Nafsika Thalassis. The abstract reads,

During the Second World War, an unprecedented concern with the mental fitness of troops led to new selection procedures designed to ensure that soldiers possessed a certain level of intelligence and emotional stability. Using a variety of sources, including case notes from contemporary psychiatrists, this article explores two categories of soldiers who were up for discharge: those with ‘low intelligence’ and those with ‘inadequate personalities’. It suggests that many psychiatrists and combatant officers did not believe it was wise to retain the maximum number of soldiers in duty because many men were thought to be inherently incapable of becoming efficient soldiers.

“Psychosurgery, Industry and Personal Responsibility, 1940–1965,” by Mical Raz. The abstract reads,

Between 1935 and 1965, tens of thousands of lobotomies were performed in the United States in an attempt to alleviate psychiatric disorders. This article focuses on the role that employment and the capacity to work played in framing the results of lobotomy in a positive light. It argues that employment status was a key factor in evaluating patients’ post-operative condition, and in determining the success of the operation. The article focuses on the publications and archive papers of Walter Freeman, the physician responsible for the widespread endorsement of lobotomy in the United States. The preoccupation of physicians and patients with the capacity to work, and the emphasis on productivity, industry and personal responsibility, were contributing factors to the success of lobotomy in the US. It is argued that the somatic intervention of lobotomy was based on, and reaffirmed, a social approach to mental illness.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.