Tania Munz‘s new book is a dual biography: both of Austrian-born experimental physiologist Karl von Frisch, and of the honeybees he worked with as experimental, communicating creatures. The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language (University of Chicago Press, 2016) alternates between chapters that take us into the work and life of a fascinating scientist amid the Nazi rise to power, and bee vignettes that chart the transformations of bees in the popular and scientific imagination over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Readers follow von Frisch from his early intimate connection with a small Brazilian parakeet that lived with the family while von Frisch was a boy, to his work on the sensory powers of fish and bees, to his work on bee communication and beyond. Munz introduces us not just to von Frisch’s texts, lectures, and experiments, but also to his work making films and his struggles to live and work under Nazi power. Munz’s book is both compellingly argued and a pleasure to read!
Blumenthal offers a historical examination of the jurisprudence of insanity, legal capacity, and accountability from post-revolutionary America through the nineteenth century. Americans struggling to set the boundaries of ordered liberty turned to Common Sense philosophy that held to divinely given rational faculties of intellect, volition, and moral sense. Republican citizenship assumed that a reasonable man, as a legal person, would act accordingly. The market economy of self-made men, the new field of medical psychology, will and contract challenges over wealth and property, tort law and increased liability claims exposed the inadequacy of social and political norms in defining human fallibility, and the limits of responsibility. Litigants, lawyers, judges, and medical experts struggled to find a reliable way to settle issues of mental competency and define the bounds of freedom. The incapacity of married women, children, and slaves provided a means of comparison for the male citizen involving metaphysical, political, social, and economic ideas wrapped up in the concept of self-government. Blumenthal has produced a remarkable piece of intellectual and legal history situated in the rapidly changing market environment of a young republic.
Alcoholism is a strange thing. That it exists, no one seriously doubts. But it’s not entirely clear (diagnostically speaking) what it is, who has it, how they get it, or how to treat it. The answers to these questions depend, apparently, on where you are, which is to say what culture you were born and raise in. Alcoholism and treatments for it in Country A might be very different from alcoholism and treatments for it in countries B, C, and D. Alcoholism is, well, relative.
This is one of the many thing I learned from reading Eugene Raikhel‘s fascinating book Governing Habits: Treating Alcoholism in the Post-Soviet Clinic (Cornell University Press, 2016). An anthropologist, Raikhel tells us the tale of how the Soviet discipline of “narcology”–the diagnosis and treatment of addiction– evolved during Soviet times and how it adapted after the USSR fell. I won’t spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that Russians treated and continue to treat alcoholism quite differently that we do in the U.S., though that’s changing (AA has arrived in Russia, something we also discuss).
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Americans with all sorts of disabilities came to be labeled as “unproductive citizens.” Before that, disabled people had contributed as they were able in homes, on farms, and in the wage labor market, reflecting the fact that Americans had long viewed productivity as a spectrum that varied by age, gender, and ability. But as Sarah F. Rose explains in No Right to Be Idle, a perfect storm of public policies, shifting family structures, and economic changes effectively barred workers with disabilities from mainstream workplaces and simultaneously cast disabled people as morally questionable dependents in need of permanent rehabilitation to achieve “self-care” and “self-support.”
By tracing the experiences of policymakers, employers, reformers, and disabled people caught up in this epochal transition, Rose masterfully integrates disability history and labor history. She shows how people with disabilities lost access to paid work and the status of “worker”–a shift that relegated them and their families to poverty and second-class economic and social citizenship. This has vast consequences for debates about disability, work, poverty, and welfare in the century to come.
In the nineteenth century, several institutions were established in the United States to house and care for the mentally ill. By 1880, 139 “asylums” and “mental hospitals” had been created using both private and public funds, and by 1890, every state had built one or more publicly supported mental hospitals. Although early American asylums were often underfunded and crowded, they were often one of the few options for those suffering from mental illness. These large and grandiose facilities could therefore serve as a place of refuge. In addition, these asylums were significant places for research and teaching in early medicine, psychiatry, and psychology.
Postcard production blossomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, coinciding with the establishment of many “state lunatic hospitals.” Featuring more than 300 images of early public and private asylums as presented in picture postcards, this book offers a fascinating view of these grand structures, the expansive grounds and gardens they occupied, and their unique architectural features. The images are accompanied by brief historical descriptions of each institution, along with information about their current status. Together, the images and text offer the reader an opportunity to explore the space and places of early mental health care of the United States.
In his new book The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing (Crown, 2017), Damion Searls presents the first biography of Hermann Rorschach and the history of the Rorschach Test. A story that is largely untold, Searls starts with the childhood of Rorschach and brings readers through his growth as a psychiatrist as he created an experiment to probe the mind using a set of ten inkblots. As a visual artist, Rorschach incorporated his ability to think about visuals and his belief that what is seen is more important than what we say. After his early death, Rorschach’s Test found its way to America being used by the military, to test job applicants, to evaluate defendants and parents in custody battles and people suffering from mental illness. In addition, it has been used throughout advertising and incorporated in Hollywood and popular culture. A tragic figure, and one of the most influential psychiatrists in the twentieth century, The Inkblots allows readers to better understand how Rorschach and his test impacted psychiatry and psychological testing. Searls’ work is eloquently written and detailed, pulling in unpublished letters, diaries and interviews with family, friends and colleagues. Searls’ well researched text presents insight into the ways that art and science have impacted modern psychology and popular culture.
On March 15th attend a talk given by Harriet Washington titled Infectious Madness, the Well Curve and the Microbial Roots of Mental Disturbance. Washington is a science writer, editor and ethicist who has been a Research Fellow in Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, a visiting scholar at DePaul University College of Law and a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University. She has also held fellowships at Stanford University. The lecture is based on her book Infectious Madness: The Surprising Science of How We “Catch” Mental Illness. The promotional abstract reads as follows:
From offended gods to broken taboos to schizophrenogenic mothers, mankind has long been enmeshed in what neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky calls the “primordial muck” of mental-illness etiology. Today, armed with clearer insights and better tools, we are undergoing a paradigm shift that acknowledges the key role of our microbial fellow passengers in forging our mental health.
The talk is 6:00-7:30 pm, at The New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029. Free for students, $15 for the public.
Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch’s life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch’s life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.
Abraham describes McCulloch’s early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch’s dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch’s transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today’s multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.
Gittings, at Lahusen’s suggestion, sought an openly gay psychiatrist to present at a 1972 APA symposium entitled “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals? A Dialogue.” Along with Gittings and [Frank] Kameny, the panel included a gay-friendly heterosexual analyst, Judd Marmor. As none of the gay psychiatrists she knew would appear openly gay in public—at the time, one could lose one’s medical license because homosexuality was illegal in almost every U.S. state—Barbara Gittings convinced John Fryer to appear in disguise as Dr. H. Anonymous.
Fryer, wearing an oversized tuxedo, a rubber Richard Nixon Halloween mask, and a fright wig, explained to his fellow psychiatrists the pain of the professional closet. [Kay Tobin] Lahusen’s photograph of the masked Dr. H Anonymous, now gone viral on the Internet, is a chilling, yet humorous, iconic moment in the history of the LGBT civil rights movement. Further, the panel and the hard work of Gittings, Lahusen, Kameny, and Fryer led to the APA’s removing “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-II) the following year.
More on Gittings and Tracy Baim’s biography can be found here.
In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind: a set of ten carefully designed inkblots. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic movements of the day, from Futurism to Dadaism. A visual artist himself, Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.
After Rorschach’s early death, his test quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, and people suffering from mental illness or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.
In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.
A short interview with author Damion Searls on NPR can be heard here.