PsychCentral, one of the larger psych-blogging hubs, has posted a review by Margarita Tartakovsky of Richard Noll‘s (2011) American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox.
In her reading of it, the book can be situated at the boundary between the history of psychiatry, the history of psychology, and the public understanding of science:
The public was introduced to dementia praecox by a 1907 piece in the New York Times that recounted the testimony in the murder trial of architect Stanford White. The superintendent of an asylum in Binghamton, N.Y. testified that the murderer, Harry Kendall Thaw, might’ve been suffering with dementia praecox.
In the late 1920s to the 1930s, dementia praecox started making its exit, replaced by Eugen Bleuler’s “schizophrenia.” At first, Noll says, these terms were used interchangeably in both clinical practice and research (which, naturally, made things very confusing). But these disorders had distinct differences.
Although he didn’t use the word, Noll—in a recent interview posted at the blog run by Harvard University Press—explained the overlap as being a consequence of schizophrenia’s “indigenization” into the American context. This then wrought changes in meaning:
By 1927 schizophrenia became the preferred term for inexplicable madness, but the Americans reframed Bleuler’s disease concept as a primarily functional or psychogenic condition that was caused by mothers or maladjustments to social reality. When Bleuler visited the United States in 1929 he was horrified to see what the Americans were calling schizophrenia. He insisted it was a physical disease with a chronic course characterized by exacerbations and remissions of hallucinations, delusions and bizarre behaviors.
This duality, of madness caught between mental condition and physical disease, also provides a connection from the mind back to medicine. Noll explained this in the book:
Dementia praecox was the vehicle through which American psychiatry reentered general medicine. It descended into American asylums from the Valhalla of superior German medicine and presented American alienists with a divine gift: its first truly specifiable disease concept. (Noll, 2011, p. 286)
It sounds like a worthwhile read.
In addition to this review, Tartakovsky has written several other short essays for PsychCentral that will be of interest to the readers of AHP:
- A Forgotten Pioneer in Cognitive Psychology: Otto Selz
- The History of Nude Psychotherapy
- The Psychology of Advertising
- The Surprising History of the Lobotomy
- How the DSM Developed
- Stanley Milgram & The Shock Heard Around the World
- Zimbardo’s Infamous Prison Experiment: Where the Key Players Are Now
- 3 Facts You Might Not Know about Freud and His Biggest Addiction