A recent article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine may be of interest to AHP readers. Exploring the happenings at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, Kathleen Brain describes how the antebellum asylum asserted ownership over the prevention of suicide and the ramifications of this claim. Full details below.
““The Weight of Perhaps Ten or a Dozen Human Lives”: Suicide, Accountability, and the Life-Saving Technologies of the Asylum,” by Kathleen M. Brian. The abstract reads,
By accounting for the law’s productive capacity to structure asylum physicians’ encounters with suicide, this essay argues that the antebellum asylum was a technology for the preservation of life. The essay first shows how suicide’s history as a crime encouraged popular attributions of suicide to insanity. What began as a tactic to protect survivors, however, ended by bolstering the professional claims of asylum medicine. Initially it appeared there was much to gain from claiming suicide as their own, but dominion over prevention in fact rendered asylum physicians and their staffs vulnerable in unanticipated ways: for while agents of suicide were effectively evacuated of legal responsibility, a variety of laws made physicians more accountable than ever. Focusing on medical superintendent Amariah Brigham and his staff at the New York State Lunatic Asylum shows how the anxiety of assuming guardianship over the suicidal created networks of accountability that profoundly affected daily life.
A new national project, After the Asylum/Après l’asile, documenting the shift from institutional care to community mental health in Canada has recently launched. As historians Megan Davies and Erika Dyck discuss in a recent blog post,
The shift from institutional to community mental health was among the most significant social changes of the late 20th century. Between 1965 and 1980 nearly 50,000 beds were closed in residential psychiatric facilities across Canada. De-institutionalization profoundly changed the lives of former patients and those who worked with them, impacting the larger economy, public health and social planning, and challenging ideas of individual rights and capabilities.
The first national project of its kind, After the Asylum/Après l’asile presents this complex and often difficult history, making clear its continuing relevance. We examine early mental health initiatives, we consider how therapeutic and professional contours of care were reshaped, and we explore new consumer / user networks and cultures that emerged. Many of the exhibits speak to the continuing social and economic marginalization of people deemed mentally ill, whose lives are often poignant testaments to the limits of a reconstituted mental health system.
The project can be explored in full here.
On November 19th Alice White, Wikimedian in Residence at the Wellcome Library, is running a Wikepedia edit-a-thon to coincide with the Wellcome Collection‘s ongoing exhibit Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond. The event is free and open to the public. It will
…begin with a morning of talks on various aspects of the history of psychiatry and mental health, to provide some inspiration for the editing to come! After a break for lunch, we’ll dive into some wiki-training from Alice White, Wikimedian in Residence at the Wellcome Library, which will cover everything from to creating an account and to how to edit. After learning your way around and getting comfortable with editing, you will have the opportunity to develop articles on the history of psychiatry: there are lots of pages on institutions, groups and individuals (particularly women) that are missing or very brief, so there’s lots of scope for making some exciting improvements!
Complete beginners are welcome to attend, and no previous experience is necessary, though a little digital skill is needed – but if you can use Microsoft Word, you can edit Wikipedia. Participants should bring a laptop or tablet (or request one in advance when you sign up) – editing is much easier with a keyboard. If you’ve spotted an article that needs improving, bring along your queries and we’ll see what we can do to help!
Individuals are also welcome to join the event remotely. Full details are available here.
Now on at the Wellcome Collection in London is an exhibit on “Bedlam: The Asylum & Beyond.” The exhibit, which runs until January 15th 2017, is described on their website as follows:
Follow the rise and fall of the mental asylum and explore how it has shaped the complex landscape of mental health today. Reimagine the institution, informed by the experiences of the patients, doctors, artists and reformers who inhabited the asylum or created alternatives to it.
Today asylums have largely been consigned to history but mental illness is more prevalent than ever, as our culture teems with therapeutic possibilities: from prescription medications and clinical treatment to complementary medicines, online support, and spiritual and creative practices. Against this background, the exhibition interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed.
Taking Bethlem Royal Hospital as a starting point, ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ juxtaposes historical material and medical records with individual testimonies and works by artists such as David Beales, Richard Dadd, Dora García, Eva Kotátková, Madlove: A Designer Asylum, Shana Moulton, Erica Scourti, Javier Téllez and Adolf Wölfli, whose works reflect or reimagine the institution, as both a physical and a virtual space.
The January 2016 issue of Medical History is a special issue dedicated to “Tales from the Asylum. Patient Narratives and the (De)construction of Psychiatry.” The issue marks the 30th anniversary of Roy Porter’s seminal article, “The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from Below. A full list of article titles, authors, and abstracts follows below.
Editorial: “The Patient’s Turn Roy Porter and Psychiatry’s Tales, Thirty Years on,” by Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau and Aude Fauvel. No abstract.
“Animal Magnetism, Psychiatry and Subjective Experience in Nineteenth-Century Germany: Friedrich Krauß and his Nothschrei,” by Burkhart Brückner. The abstract reads,
Friedrich Krauß (1791–1868) is the author of Nothschrei eines Magnetisch-Vergifteten [Cry of Distress by a Victim of Magnetic Poisoning] (1852), which has been considered one of the most comprehensive self-narratives of madness published in the German language. In this 1018-page work Krauß documents his acute fears of ‘mesmerist’ influence and persecution, his detainment in an Antwerp asylum and his encounter with various illustrious physicians across Europe. Though in many ways comparable to other prominent nineteenth-century first-person accounts (eg. John Thomas Perceval’s 1838 Narrative of the Treatment Experienced by a Gentleman or Daniel Paul Schreber’s 1903 Memoirs of my Nervous Illness), Krauß’s story has received comparatively little scholarly attention. This is especially the case in the English-speaking world. In this article I reconstruct Krauß’s biography by emphasising his relationship with physicians and his under-explored stay at the asylum. I then investigate the ways in which Krauß appropriated nascent theories about ‘animal magnetism’ to cope with his disturbing experiences. Finally, I address Krauß’s recently discovered calligraphic oeuvre, which bears traces of his typical fears all the while showcasing his artistic skills. By moving away from the predominantly clinical perspective that has characterised earlier studies, this article reveals how Friedrich Krauß sought to make sense of his experience by selectively appropriating both orthodox and non-orthodox forms of medical knowledge. In so doing, it highlights the mutual interaction of discourses ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ as well as the influence of broader cultural forces on conceptions of self and illness during that seminal period.
“‘No “Sane” Person Would Have Any Idea’: Patients’ Involvement in Late Nineteenth-century British Asylum Psychiatry,” by Sarah Chaney. The abstract reads, Continue reading Special Issue: “Tales from the Asylum. Patient Narratives and the (De)construction of Psychiatry”