New Issue – Social History of Medicine

social hist

The August 2011 issue of Social History of Medicine is now out and contains a number of articles dealing with the history of madness and psychiatry, from an historical study of hypochondriasis in 17th- and 18th-century British medicine to diagnoses of lunacy among indigenous peoples in Western Australia during the fin de siècle, to the history of “vampirism” in psychiatric classifications:

“The Transformation of Hypochondriasis in British Medicine, 1680–1830” (Russell Noyes, Jr)

Today, hypochondriasis is a mental disturbance characterized by unfounded fear of serious illness, but in the seventeenth century, it was a common physical condition. Over the next 150 years in Great Britain, the disorder was transformed. What had been an affliction of abdominal organs became a disorder of the nervous system and brain, and finally the mind. Two factors contributed to this change. One was a shift in the social context of emerging medical knowledge. As medical practice moved from bedside to hospital, illnesses that had involved the whole person came to reside in bodily organs. Hypochondriasis became illness without somatic disease. The other was a change in English society that altered the disorder’s social significance. During the Enlightenment, hypochondriasis became, on the one hand, a mark of distinction conferring class status, and on the other, an object of social disapproval. Its history yields perspective on the social forces at work in and around the disorder today.

“‘Behaving Wildly’: Diagnoses of Lunacy among Indigenous Persons in Western Australia, 1870–1914” (Philippa Martyr)

How did the diagnosis and treatment of lunacy in Western Australia intersect with Indigenous control by whites, and attitudes to Indigenous Western Australians in general, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Historical analyses of the pre-1960s period are fragmentary, but there seems to have been about 30 cases of Indigenous persons being charged or diagnosed with lunacy in the period from 1870 to 1914, the overwhelming majority of whom were from remote and sparsely-settled areas of Western Australia. The constant ill-treatment to which most Indigenous people were subjected by whites, combined with often-terrifying internecine warfare between local clans or families, makes these diagnoses problematic. There is little evidence that white professionals made any connection between this ill-treatment and the development of lunacy, nor is any consideration given by local medical practitioners to the idea that acknowledged signs of insanity among white settlers were not necessarily signs of insanity among Indigenous people.

“Vampirism as Mental Illness: Myth, Madness and the Loss of Meaning in Psychiatry”  (Seamus Mac Suibhne and Brendan D. Kelly)

Vampirism, as a clinical presentation, was formerly much discussed in psychiatric literature. In recent years this has not been the case. This article begins by exploring the history of vampiric phenomena and the various medical theories of vampirism. It discusses the change in emphasis in psychiatry from a psychotherapeutically-influenced exploration of the meaning of a particular symptom to a more ostensibly evidence-based, checklist approach. This reflects a wider shift in psychiatric culture. Articles from the psychiatric literature dealing with vampirism are reviewed in depth. The article argues that the clinical interpretation of vampirism may be useful as an indicator of shifting attitudes within psychiatric discourse.

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