Syllabus: Vijselaar, “History of Psychiatry: The Asylum, Inside Out”

This is another installment in our series on university and college courses dealing with the history of madness, mental illness, and psychiatry.

Joost Vijselaar is senior researcher at the Trimbos Institute (The Netherlands Institute for Mental health and Addiction) and professor in the history of psychiatry at Utrecht University, as such he is a member of the Descartes Centre in Utrecht. He has published extensively on the history of Dutch psychiatry, among others a number of books on the history of individual psychiatric hospitals (for example on the famous asylum Meerenberg in Bloemendaal). Alongside he studied the reception of animal magnetism in the Netherlands in a comparative perspective, resulting in the book ‘The magnetic soul’: De magnetische geest. Het dierlijk magnetisme 1770-1830 (2001). He was involved in the creation of the national museum for psychiatry ‘Het Dolhuys’ (‘The Madhouse’) in Haarlem 2005. Recently he completed historical-sociological research on patient records from the first half of the twentieth century, published as Het gesticht, enkele reis of retour (or: ‘The asylum, single fare or return’). Currently he is working on a biography of the Dutch reformer of psychiatry J.L.C. Schroeder van der Kolk (1797-1862). The main focus of his research these days is on the use of electricity in explanation and therapy of mental illness and nervous disease from the eighteenth century onwards.

Bachelor research seminar – The Asylum, Inside Out. Department of History and Art History, Utrecht University

This course is an intensive research seminar, part of an obligatory program during the third and last year of the bachelor study in the Department of History. It comprises an introduction to the theme (in this case the history of the Dutch asylum), the analysis of both primary and secondary sources, independent research by the students themselves on a subject of their own choice, and the writing of a final essay (30 pages A4, spaced 1,5). The essay is regarded as the bachelors thesis. As many students do not have first-hand experience in analyzing primary sources and are not acquainted with archives, I emphasize the importance of reading and interpreting primary source material, requiring students to analyze such sources in class within the context of the secondary literature. As part of the course I ask students to prepare a research proposal more or less according to the regulations of the National Organisation of Scientific Research. An important aim of the seminar, therefore, is the training of historical skills.

As to the history of psychiatry, I use Roy Porter’s Madness, a brief history as a general introduction, complemented by the book of Ido Weijers and Ruud Abma (both of Utrecht University) Met gezag en deskundigheid (a history of the profession of psychiatry in the Netherlands) as the overview of the Dutch history. Articles and book chapters pertaining to specific subjects are used as supplementary literature. The program covers the coming into existence of the asylum during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the development of the therapeutic regime, the organization and the disciplines of psychiatry up to the 1950s, and both the antipsychiatric movement and the process of deinstitutionalization, focusing on the question (particularly relevant to the Netherlands) of whether the asylum is disappearing. As stated above, students read and analyze primary texts such as articles, chapters of main textbooks, annual reports, ego documents, and architectural descriptions.

Subjects that students in the past have dealt with in their research were, among others: the architectural history of a city asylum; occupational therapy during the interwar years; the character of the Dutch central Jewish asylum; orthodox protestants and psychoanalysis; military psychiatry in the Dutch East Indies; the influence of military psychiatry on antipsychiatry; lobotomy in the Netherlands; the psychoanalysis of psychosis at the University of Leyden around 1930; the therapy of anorexia nervosa, etc.

This year I will organize a similar research seminar on the history of psychiatry and electricity from the 18th century to the present.

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