‘Nerves’ enjoyed a central place in German debates about war at the beginning of the 20th Century. Politicians, scientists, the public, and the military discussed the extent to which a future war would strain the nerves of German society. Concepts of ´strength of nerves´ as well as of ´weakness of nerves´ were increasingly used as combat terms during the First World War. The massive scale of experiences of psychological injuries and suffering only added to this phenomenon. The social and political administration of the medical treatment of psychological war disabilities presided over post-war discourses of managing the consequences of war. Simultaneously, a new spiritual mobilization for war followed in the Weimar Republic, which, after 1933, ‘synchronized’ almost all aspects of social life in the Third Reich.
Current scholarship has devoted substantial historical research to the treatment and accommodation of psychological war-disabled veterans. This conference focuses on contemporary discourses on nerves in politics, society, science, and the military and aspires to elaborate the interaction as well as their practical consequences of these discourses for the period of 1900 and 1933. At this conference nerves are understood as a code and a construct that are central in negotiating identity. Both, contemporary discourses on nerves as well as individual and collective experiences of psychological mobilization and suffering will be presented and analyzed. The focus of the conference papers is on Germany, but in a wider European context.
Venue: Freie Universität Berlin, Fabeckstraße 23-25, 14195 Berlin, Room: 2.2059
The September issue of Science in Context includes an article by Henning Schmidgen as part of a topical section on “Surfaces in the History of Modern Science: Inscribing, Separating, Enclosing.” In his piece Schmidgen explores the importance of Hermann Helmholtz’s graphic recordings of the speed of nerve transmissions. Full details follow below.
“Leviathan and the Myograph: Hermann Helmholtz’s “Second Note” on the Propagation Speed of Nervous Stimulations,” by Henning Schmidgen. The abstract reads,
In the winter of 1849–1850 in Königsberg, German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) conducted pioneering measurements concerning the propagation speed of stimulations in the living nerve. While recent historians of science have paid considerable attention to Helmholtz’s uses of the graphic method, in particular his construction of an instrument called “myographion,” this paper draws attention to the inscription surfaces that he used in effective ways for capturing and transmitting his findings. Against the background of recent archival findings, I show that Helmholtz used isinglass copies of his graphical recordings in order to communicate the basic principle of previous measurements to the academic public. As the correspondence with his Berlin-based friend and colleague Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896) and the subsequent development of the myographion make clear, these curves were not meant as measurements but functioned as demonstrations. In other words, Helmholtz’s curves did provide “images of precision” (Olesko and Holmes 1993) – but they were not precise images.
Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century. In his own time (1818–1896) du Bois-Reymond grew famous in his native Germany and beyond for his groundbreaking research in neuroscience and his provocative addresses on politics and culture. This biography by Gabriel Finkelstein draws on personal papers, published writings, and contemporary responses to tell the story of a major scientific figure. Du Bois-Reymond’s discovery of the electrical transmission of nerve signals, his innovations in laboratory instrumentation, and his reductionist methodology all helped lay the foundations of modern neuroscience.
In addition to describing the pioneering experiments that earned du Bois-Reymond a seat in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and a professorship at the University of Berlin, Finkelstein recounts du Bois-Reymond’s family origins, private life, public service, and lasting influence. Du Bois-Reymond’s public lectures made him a celebrity. In talks that touched on science, philosophy, history, and literature, he introduced Darwin to German students (triggering two days of debate in the Prussian parliament); asked, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, whether France had forfeited its right to exist; and proclaimed the mystery of consciousness, heralding the age of doubt. The first modern biography of du Bois-Reymond in any language, this book recovers an important chapter in the history of science, the history of ideas, and the history of Germany.
Two forthcoming articles in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (JHMAS), on topics associated with the history of psychology, have been published online. The first article, by Edgar Jones, describes the psychological understanding of shell shock in Britain at the time of the First World War, while the other details the potentionally pathological relationship thought to exist between music and nerves at the turn of the nineteenth century. Title, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“Shell Shock at Maghull and the Maudsley: Models of Psychological Medicine in the UK” by Edgar Jones. The abstract reads:
The shell-shock epidemic of 1915 challenged the capacity and expertise of the British Army’s medical services. What appeared to be a novel and complex disorder raised questions of causation and treatment. To address these pressing issues, Moss Side Military Hospital at Maghull became a focus for experiment in the developing field of psychological medicine as clinicians from diverse backgrounds and disciplines were recruited and trained at this specialist treatment unit. Continue reading Shell Shock in JHMAS→