Category Archives: General

The politics of female pain: Women’s citizenship, twilight sleep and the early birth control movement

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece now available in Medical Humanities: “The politics of female pain: Women’s citizenship, twilight sleep and the early birth control movement,” by Lauren MacIvor Thompson. Abstract:

The medical intervention of ‘twilight sleep’, or the use of a scopolamine–morphine mixture to anaesthetise labouring women, caused a furore among doctors and early 20th-century feminists. Suffragists and women’s rights advocates led the Twilight Sleep Association in a quest to encourage doctors and their female patients to widely embrace the practice. Activists felt the method revolutionised the notoriously dangerous and painful childbirth process for women, touting its benefits as the key to allowing women to control their birth experience at a time when the maternal mortality rate remained high despite medical advances in obstetrics. Yet many physicians attacked the practice as dangerous for patients and their babies and antithetical to the expectations for proper womanhood and motherly duty. Historians of women’s health have rightly cited Twilight Sleep as the beginning of the medicalisation and depersonalisation of the childbirth process in the 20th century. This article instead repositions the feminist political arguments for the method as an important precursor for the rhetoric of the early birth control movement, led by Mary Ware Dennett (a former leader in the Twilight Sleep Association) and Margaret Sanger. Both Twilight Sleep and the birth control movement represent a distinct moment in the early 20th century wherein pain was deeply connected to politics and the rhetoric of equal rights. The two reformers emphasised in their publications and appeals to the public the vast social significance of reproductive pain—both physical and psychological. They contended that women’s lack of control over both pregnancy and birth represented the greatest hindrance to women’s fulfilment of their political rights and a danger to the healthy development of larger society. In their arguments for legal contraception, Dennett and Sanger placed women’s pain front and centre as the primary reason for changing a law that hindered women’s full participation in the public order.

Rescue for the Last Residence of Wilhelm Wundt

The following comes to us from Dr. Andreas Jüttemann, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin.

It is well known that Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) developed his historically highly significant effect at the University of Leipzig and is therefore regarded as perhaps the greatest founder personality of psychology. A fact less well known is, that he not only established the world’s first laboratory for experimental psychology in Leipzig, but was also the initiator for the emergence of a developmental psychology oriented towards cultural history, for which he introduced the term “folk psychology”, which is no longer used today.

The houses in which Wundt lived in Leipzig (a town of half a million inhabitants in the German federal state of Saxony, 100 miles south of Berlin with half a million inhabitants) were destroyed in the Second World War. His last domicile, located in Großbothen near Leipzig was preserved. Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and a close friend of Wundt, also lived there. Wundt’s home in Großbothen was erected around 1903/04 “well proportioned in Italian style”. Wundt died on 31 August 1920 in his Großbothen home.

Since the political change in the GDR in 1990 the privately owned house was uninhabited. In the last years the decay increased further and the owner considered its demolition. Several players from Berlin, Leipzig and Freiburg wanted to avert this by acquiring the house and have been trying to buy it back for many years. The main objective of the present project is to save this house from final decay and to rebuild it in a way that is appropriate for its preservation as a historical monument for subsequent use as a place of research and remembrance in the history of German science. A monument conservator from Freiburg (and wife of a Wundt-researcher) negotiated with the owner and was able to purchase the building in November 2017. It was a last-minute purchase. In November 2018, the federal government and the state of Saxony approved the funding. Now the restoration of the dilapidated house can begin.

Parallel to the real estate negotiations, the “Förderverein Wilhelm-Wundt-Haus Großbothen” was founded in the summer of 2016. This consists of scientists and monument conservationists, planners, local politicians and residents, who through their presence express the public interest in the preservation of the house for the place, the region and for the Wundt-Research. In the long term, the association is to be transformed into a foundation and take over ownership.

After the restoration, a utilization  closely associated with the name Wundt could be considered. Although the “Wilhelm-Wundt-Raum” at the Psychological Institute Leipzig and the Würth Museum for the History of Psychology in Würzburg already exist, it would be highly desirable to develop Großbothen into a Wundt-Research Institute or a Museum for the History of Psychology. For this use, however, there is a lack of ideas and, above all, of long-term financial support. In June 2019, a conference on the history of science is planned for the Wundthaus Project in Berlin. Wundt’s last preserved place of his life and work, which has now become a place of research and remembrance should be expanded.

If you are interested in a participation of the Wundthaus (above all also in a non-material, but also financial participation), please contact us:

Müller’s Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies

Now available online, and forthcoming in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, are two pieces on Müller’s doctrine of specific nerve energies that may be of interest to AHP readers.

“Realism without tears I: Müller’s Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies,” by Alistair M. C. Isaac. Abstract:

The Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies has been and continues to be enormously influential in the physiology, psychology, and philosophy of perception. In simple terms, the Doctrine states that we directly perceive in the first instance the activity of our nerves, rather than properties in the external world. The canonical early statement of the Doctrine by the physiologist Johannes Peter Müller had profound influence on both the philosophy and psychology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially as reformulated and transmitted by Müller’s student Helmholtz. A common assumption of historical and ongoing debate about the Doctrine has been its supposedly idealist or skeptical implications. What is not commonly recognized is that Müller himself advanced a realist interpretation along lines that would be recognized today as a form of epistemic structural realism. This paper analyzes Müller’s structuralist epistemology in detail and reconstructs his articulation and defense of the Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies in its canonical form. Part II argues for the continued importance of the Doctrine and its structuralist interpretation for contemporary psychology, philosophy of perception, and history of philosophy of science.

“Realism without tears II: The structuralist legacy of sensory physiology,” by Alistair M. C. Isaac. Abstract:

This paper examines the implications of the Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies for contemporary philosophy and psychology. Part I analyzed Johannes Peter Müller’s canonical formulation of the Doctrine, arguing that it follows from empirical results combined with methodological principles. Here, I argue that these methodological principles remain valid in psychology today, consequently, any naturalistic philosophy of perception must accept the Doctrine’s skeptical conclusion, that the qualities of our perceptual experience are not determined by, and thus do not reveal the nature of, their causes in the world. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we must be global skeptics; rather, I argue that contemporary epistemology of perception should embrace Müller’s own response to the Doctrine: epistemic structural realism. As articulated by Müller’s student, Helmholtz, structural realism follows from the Doctrine once we recognize that active exploration constitutes part of the mechanism that determines perceptual experience, a view congenial to contemporary theories of embodied perception in cognitive science. Structural realists in philosophy of science should likewise heed the lessons of the Doctrine, as it played a critical part in the early history of their view, and may still serve a constructive role as exemplar today.

Special Issue in Honour of Gerald Grob

The January 2019 issue of Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences is a special issue in honour of historian of American psychiatry Gerald Grob. Full details below.

“Introduction,” by Nancy Tomes; Kathleen W Jones. Abstract:

This article offers an overview of the life and work of Gerald N. Grob. As part of a generation of scholars intent on overturning the old “Whig history” of medicine, Grob pioneered the use of institutional history as an analytical tool. His work on American psychiatry combined a formidable command of archival sources with a strong commitment to putting medical practice in social context. Grob’s personal and political views put him at odds with other scholars of the asylum; he conducted some very public feuds with David Rothman and Andrew Scull. At the same time, he showed a more benevolent side to younger historians interested in psychiatry; he took particular pains to encourage women (including the authors of this introduction) to enter a historical specialty then dominated by men. To honor Grob’s legacy as a scholar and a person, this special issue features articles written by several generations of scholars influenced and inspired by his work.

“New Directions in the Historiography of Psychiatry,” by Deborah Doroshow; Matthew Gambino; Mical Raz. Abstract:

Gerald Grob’s work in the history of psychiatry over the course of almost fifty years created a model for how historians might successfully situate mental health in its social and political context, and how inseparable it was from this context. Over the last twenty years, the field has grown tremendously. Historians have incorporated categories of analysis like gender and race, methodologies like cultural history and intellectual history, and sought to continue Grob’s quest to understand American mental health history as a critical component of American history writ large. In this piece, we suggest several potential areas for future study. Building on Grob’s work on the asylum, we focus on the continued need to explore the texture of lived experience for both practitioners and those experiencing mental illness, both within and beyond the institution. In an era when the politics of deinstitutionalization continue to shape the modern mental health enterprise, we suggest that further examination of the consequences of deinstitutionalization is both inherently rich and relevant to contemporary mental health practice. Finally, we discuss opportunities for historians to engage with policymaking and social justice, pointing to incarceration and juvenile justice as two especially relevant areas for further study.

“Homosexuality and Psychoanalysis Meet at a Mental Hospital: An Early Institutional History,” by Naoko Wake. Abstract:

Psychoanalysis and homosexuality in the United States were both largely in flux between 1910 and 1935. This article sheds light on this unique historical moment by first exploring scholarly discussions of the era’s psychoanalysis and homosexuality, both of which emphasized the transitional nature of therapy and sexuality. By putting two bodies of scholarship into conversation, I also suggest how the historiography might move beyond two oft-cited arguments—that the psychoanalysis of the era had the power to form a person’s sexual identity negatively, and that sexual minorities formed their identities affirmatively by staying away from medical interventions. I argue that, instead, psychoanalysis was part of modern sexual identity-formation in surprisingly open-ended ways. The second half of the article continues to explore the interplay between therapy and sexuality by closely examining clinical practices at one of the leading mental hospitals of the era: Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland, where an eclectic mode of psychotherapy was actively employed to treat homosexuality. In particular, the work of Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949), a gay psychiatrist well-known for his interpersonal theory of mental illness, shows how male patients who experienced same-sex sexual relationships nurtured productive interdependency among men in their articulation of sexual identity. By carefully delineating this process, the article shows how analytic practices could, and sometimes did, offer a crucial space for self-reflection and articulation of male sexuality.

“Pathologizing the Crisis: Psychiatry, Policing, and Racial Liberalism in the Long Community Mental Health Movement,” by Nic John Ramos. Abstract:

The community mental health movement has been generally regarded as a benevolent movement that replaced old notions of psychiatric racism with new ideas about the normality of race. Few studies, however, have explored the movement for its active support for new surveillance and policing strategies, particularly broken windows theory, a policing approach partly responsible for the expansion of prisons in the United States after the 1970s. Looking to racially liberal approaches to psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s crafted by integrationist psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West and black nationalist psychiatrist J. Alfred Cannon at the University of California, Los Angeles, this essay demonstrates that cultural and biological explanations for racial violence in civil rights and black nationalist discourses renewed surveillance on poor people of color that resulted in increased forms of incarceration, segregation, and discrimination for them by the 1980s. Rather than forward racial justice, I argue that psychiatric discourses arguing for the racial sameness of white and black minds in the 1960s and 1970s relied on scientific and cultural narratives centered on child development, gender, and sexuality that obscured the processes of racial capitalism that continued to produce poverty and sickness in black communities.

“Psychiatric Jim Crow: Desegregation at the Crownsville State Hospital, 1948–1970,” Ayah Nuriddin. Abstract:

The Crownsville State Hospital, located in Maryland just outside of Annapolis, provides a thought-provoking example of the impact of desegregation in the space of the mental hospital. Using institutional reports, patient records, and oral histories, this article reconstructs the three phases of desegregation at Crownsville. First, as a result of its poor conditions, lack of qualified staff, and its egregious mistreatment of patients, African American community leaders and organizations such as the NAACP called for the desegregation of the care staff of Crownsville in the late 1940s. Second, the introduction of a skilled African American staff created unprecedented and morally complex issues about access to psychiatric therapeutics. Last, in 1963, Health Commissioner Dr. Isadore Tuerk officially desegregated patients in all Maryland state hospitals. Though desegregation brought much needed improvements to Crownsville, these gains were ultimately swamped by deinstitutionalization and the shift towards outpatient psychiatric care. By the 1970s, Crownsville had returned to the poor conditions that existed during segregation.

“The Final Years of Central State Hospital ,” by Ellen Dwyer. Abstract:

There is a rich literature on the deinstitutionalization movement in the US but few, if any, parallel histories of state mental hospitals. Under attack from the 1950s on, state hospitals dwindled in size and importance. Yet, their budgets remained large. This paper offers a case study of one such facility, Indiana’s Central State Hospital, between 1968 and 1994. During these years, local newspapers published multiple stories of patient abuse and neglect. Internal hospital materials also acknowledged problems but offered few solutions. In 1984, the US Department of Justice intervened, charging Central State with having violated patients’ civil rights, the first such action filed under the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Although Indiana signed a consent decree promising major reform, long-lasting change proved elusive. Civil and criminal lawsuits proliferated. In 1992, as Central State continued to attract negative attention, Indiana Governor Evan Bayh ordered the troubled hospital closed. His decision promised to save the state millions of dollars and won plaudits from many, but not all, mental health advocates. Even as the last patients left in 1994, some families continued to challenge the wisdom of eliminating Indiana’s only large urban mental hospital, but to no effect.