Skip to main content
Biomedicine in museums

Workshop on writing the history of psychiatry after 1945

By September 18, 2007No Comments

Postwar historiography of psychiatry is much less developed than the contemporary history of laboratory medicine. This lacuna will hopefully be remedied by a workshop to be held at the Université libre de Bruxelles, 30-31 May 2008:

The history of psychiatry in the twentieth century is characterised by an historiographic void compared with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This post-1945 historiographic void has been cited frequently in recent literature and comprises the starting point for this workshop. It aims to present an overview of the current state of research and move beyond the narrow perspectives that characterises the history of psychiatry in terms of whiggish or cyclic (biological against social psychiatry) progression . This first workshop will focus on two questions: the chronologies and paradigms of current research. The use and abuse of psychiatry in the context of Nazi policies is an exception; but the focus on National Socialism seems to have drawn attention away from the rest of the century and isolated these ‘dark years’. Indeed, with the exception of this period, the historical narrative of psychiatry in the twentieth century is still largely unstructured, or still too characterised by national epistemologies. To date the history of twentieth century psychiatry is often framed in terms of the Second World War. Is the political caesura of 1945 relevant? The introduction of the first shock therapies in the 1930s or the psychopharmaceutical revolution of the 1950s could be other historical turning points. If one considers the history of psychiatry in larger medical, scientific and social frameworks, other chronologies become visible. Contrary to Michel Foucault’s ‘Great Confinement’ or Dirk Blasius’s ‘differentiation of bourgeois society’, the history of psychiatry of the twentieth century — and especially of the post-war period — seems to lack a master narrative that could help structure discussions in the social sciences and contemporary history, as well as contextualise psychiatric discourse and practice. To what extent are the conferences by Michel Foucault in the Collège de France or the work of Gladys Swain and Marcel Gauchet, elaborated in the 1970s and 1980s, analytic grids for the twentieth century? Can Robert Castel’s La societé psychiatrique avanc’e or the third ‘biological’ revolution in psychiatry (notably emphasised by Edward Shorter) serve as meta-accounts for a history of psychiatry after 1945? Or does diagnostic and therapeutic differentiation makes the search for a larger theoretical framework illusive? Papers that combine these larger questions with specific case studies are particularly welcome. At the same time, the workshop may be the starting point for a network of researchers and universities working on the history of psychiatry after 1945.

This great initiative has been taken by Jean-Christophe Coffin (Université Paris 5- CNRS, Centre A. Koyr’e), Emmanuel Delille (EHESS, Centre A. Koyré), Volker Hess, Eric Engstrom (Institut für Geschichte der Medizin at Charité), Sloan Mahone, Mathew Savelli (Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine at Oxford), Benoit Majerus (Université libre de Bruxelles), and Jakob Tanner, Marietta Meier (Université Zürich).

One page paper proposals should be sent to not later than 15 November.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

More posts by Thomas Söderqvist