This is another installment in our series on university and college courses dealing with the history of madness, mental illness, and psychiatry.
Rhodri Hayward is Wellcome Award Lecturer in the History of Medicine at Queen Mary, University of London, where he works closely with the Centre for the History of the Emotions. His current research examines the rise and political implications of psychiatric epidemiology in modern Britain. He has published on a wide variety of subjects including the history of dreams, Pentecostalism, demonology, cybernetics and the relations between psychiatry and primary care. His book, Resisting History: Popular Religion and the Invention of the Unconscious was published by Manchester University Press in 2007. He has recently completed a second book, Self Cures, on the relationship between psychology and medicine in modern Britain.
‘Madness and Medicine in Modern Britain’ was first developed as a masters course at the University of East Anglia, where it proved popular among creative writing students in search of fresh material. Over the last few years it has been taught as a second or third year undergraduate option to history students and is usually oversubscribed. At first glance the course appears rather parochial. It offers a linear narrative history of psychiatry in Britain from the building of the first state-sponsored asylums through to their closure under the Tory governments of the 1980s. However within this narrative strong emphasis is placed on the legal origins of psychiatric categories, the changing bases and rationalisations of medico-psychological practice and the implications that these changes carry for the understanding of selfhood and interpersonal relationships.
In my experience the narrative format works very well. Although it runs the risk of reifying certain medical developments it does bring out the contingency of psychiatric ideas and students are well able to understand the social and political factors that contribute to classifications, treatments and theories. An ongoing disappointment is that where once students turned to these seminars for political insight, they are now more likely to treat classes as a kind of therapeutic forum in which they use historical materials to reflect upon their personal problems. I once hoped that this course would help them see their problems, are in the last analysis, political. I am no longer convinced that this will happen.