“How I Became a Historian of Psychiatry”: Cathy Coleborne

To start off the new academic year, Catharine Coleborne, Associate Professor at the University of Waikato (NZ) and author among others of ‘Madness’ in the family: Insanity and institutions in the Australasian colonial world 1860s-1914 (2010) and Reading ‘Madness’: Gender and difference in the colonial asylum in Victoria, Australia, 1848-1880s (2007) has kindly agreed to share with us how she became a historian of psychiatry:

Born in 1967 in Armidale in northern New South Wales, Australia, I grew up a long way from there in the Latrobe Valley area of Gippsland in the state of Victoria. This is still a working-class area of the state and I was always aware of the importance of socio-economic dimensions of the world at large. My left-leaning parents talked a good deal about politics, and my mother in particular instilled in me a strong sense of social justice. It was in my third year of studying History and English at the University of Melbourne that I began to see History as my chosen field. In that year, I undertook what might have seemed a fairly narrow focus across the two disciplines, and studied the history and literature of early-modern England. In my combined Honours year I wrote a History Honours thesis about widowhood from 1580 to 1680, and proceeded in my Masters thesis in History to examine health, illness and life stages for women in the context of feminist debates about their construction.  In doing this I gained a new awareness of the potential of social history by looking at people’s private lives, their family worlds, secrets, silences, repression, concepts of class and power, gender, and more. At the University of Melbourne, the History and Philosophy of Science department was yet to appoint historians of the calibre of Warwick Anderson to begin what has become an important research and teaching unit in medical humanities (now the Centre for Health and Society). I had discovered the interesting and influential work of Patricia Crawford and others, but I was still on the cusp of an intellectual journey that would lead me to define myself, eventually, as a cultural historian of medicine and psychiatry.

First, then, I was trained as a feminist historian: New Zealand Feminist historian Pat Grimshaw ran the History Honours seminar in Feminist History, where I read all the major Anglo-American feminist historians, and she was also one of the supervisors, together with Charles Zika, of my Masters thesis. Now, all of this provided me with a set of tools and ideas – but what did it mean to research British histories from Australia? I certainly did not visit any ‘real’ archives or get my hands covered by literal or metaphoric manuscript ‘dust’. My many primary sources for the Masters thesis – some forty-five diaries, medical advice books, sermons, treatises, and midwives’ books – were all found in major Microfilm collections or were published and available in the extensive Baillieu Library collection. Indeed, since I had not studied much nineteenth-century colonial Australian histories, unlike most of my peers, I missed the annual trip to the Public Records Office of Victoria which was then located out in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. In fact, I missed out on any hands-on archival experience – something of a rite of passage for historians, as Carolyn Steedman notes – until I made a shift to colonial histories. This notion of the ‘rite of passage’ through archival research might be interpreted as a ‘stubborn’ professional self-presentation by historians, but it also might represent an opportunity for historians to come face-to -face with theories of making history.

In those years, aside from a kind of personal awakening that – in my view – we ought to write histories of our own places, this shift came about because I worked as a research assistant for several Australian history projects in the early 1990s. One of these roles involved researching a history of nursing in colonial Victoria, a job which took me to small hospitals all round regional Victoria. I was often the first person for many years to request to see and read old hospital board minute books for the nineteenth century. I would be led into a cold, basement room and given the freedom to range over boxes of notes, scribbles, annual reports, photocopies and other materials. These were archives, but not always well cared for or catalogued. But my experience of making sense of these to craft history – to tell stories – was somehow captivating. I was hooked. I thought about a topic for doctoral study, enrolled at Latrobe University with my supervisor Diane Kirkby, now Professor and a prominent figure in Law and History circles, and finally visited the Public Records Office.

One of the seventeenth-century women I’d written about, Hannah Allen, had experienced mental breakdown. Widowed at 25, Hannah plunged into a ‘deep melancholy’. Her memoir, Satan his Methods and Malice Baffled, published in 1683, was an account of her depression through stories of temptation, terrors, suicide attempts, self-starvation and finally, recovery. Satan taunted her with apparitions, strange lights, and forced her to blaspheme: ‘I would write in several places on the walls with the point of my sizer, Woe, Woe, Woe and alas to all Eternity’. She ingested opium, smoked spiders in a pipe with tobacco, and tried to bleed herself to death. Hannah’s message is ultimately conservative, because she recovered her health with the help of both religion and marriage; this also explains the publication of her work. My reading of Michael Macdonald’s work about ‘mystical healing’ was important here, and as I explored colonial hospitals I was reminded of this theme: if there were sick bodies in colonial Victoria, there were bound to be sick minds. I duly investigated the archival possibilities for a study of lunacy in Victoria, and also found that little academic or scholarly work had been completed for that context. The archival record, in the form of extant institutional clinical patient cases, was plentiful, and nobody had made much of these sources, at least, not for this particular site. Studies of institutional confinement existed – most importantly, Stephen Garton’s landmark and influential text Medicine and Madness, about insanity in New South Wales between 1880 and 1940, and Jill Mathews’ important work Good and Mad Women which used twentieth-century records for South Australia – but Victoria’s history of mental illness and its institutions was less well known.

One of the things I recall most about that period of my academic life is that I was now facing a range of new intellectual challenges. One person remarked, ‘Congratulations on finding your archive!’ I will always remember this comment. It made me realize that the process of embarking on archival research in one’s own context might be somehow fraught or contested.  Was this archive of asylum records mine? Was it therefore the case that no one else might look into this archive? I was in new territory. I also now had to navigate the issues of archival record selection. Among the specific methodological or theoretical tools at my disposal, along with social history modes, were feminist methods which at that time emphasised female visibility and new practices of reading and interpretation; increasingly, too, and appropriately, like their interdisciplinary colleagues, historians had begun to assert new modes of interpreting gender as a relational category. In addition, the feminist historical debate was shifting and now moving towards more complex accounts of the way that gender, class and ethnicity all intersect. Embarking on doctoral work not only moved me out of one time period and into another, but it brought new and direct intellectual challenges. In other words, far from being somehow transported into a world of the past through ‘the archive’, I was forced into a difficult set of present theoretical engagements. In becoming an archival historian, I did not contract what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida termed ‘Archive fever proper’, but rather, I maintained a surly distance from the archive as I sought to make sense of how to use it.

My book Reading ‘Madness’: Gender and difference in the colonial asylum in Victoria, Australia, 1848-1880s (API Network, Perth WA: 2007) came out a long time after the end of my doctorate in 1998, and reflects my much earlier interests in constructions of female madness in the colonial setting.  The book also directly thinks about patient casenotes as texts which created ‘madness’ and which could be read as textual representations. The book also reflects my then perhaps naive conceptions of power through a Foucauldian perspective. I was mostly influenced then by Discipline and Punish, rather than Foucault’s other work, and saw the institution as carceral and productive of meanings about insanity and the insane, rather than as institutions which were actively negotiated and which were in dialogue with families of the mentally ill. While this work reflects my thinking at that time, it made me aware of the international field of the social and cultural histories of medicine. It led to a range of exciting opportunities: I curated an exhibition about the history of mental health in Victoria that was exhibited at the Medical Museum, part of the Brownless Medical Library at the University of Melbourne, in 1999. I later conducted new research into museum collections of psychiatric objects in Western Australia, Victoria and New Zealand and Dolly MacKinnon and I recently published the collection of essays Exhibiting Madness (Routledge, 2011) which examines these themes of insanity and the museum and the politics of exhibiting collections of psychiatric objects, among many other topics.

I first came across the phrase the ‘asylum archive’ in the work of my friend and research colleague Jim Mills in his powerful account of race and insanity in colonial India. This term was used with some irony, since Mills found his major archival sources for a study of ‘native-only’ asylums in south India rotting in a cupboard in a disused psychiatric institution: nobody even knew they were there, yet the records contained hundreds of cases of Indian people confined by British administrators for wandering, smoking cannabis, and other behaviours which led to their diagnosis of insanity. Writing about South Africa, Sally Swartz laments the lost lives of women psychiatric patients at various institutions in the Cape. These lives are lost, writes Swartz, despite the vast amount of record-keeping about them.

It is something of a paradox that we know such a large amount about institutionalised people when they were hidden from public view in their own lifetimes. Archival records of insanity contain histories of people who would otherwise have remained virtually invisible, though those lives were heavily circumscribed. Recently, my own work has drawn specific attention to this asylum archive. Following my doctoral work which had focused on more limited ways on the negotiations of the inane and their families with institutions, I was interested to find out how families interacted with mental hospitals in the nineteenth century, and how those interactions, too, were gendered. This research involved new approaches to four different state or national archives and culminated in the book ‘Madness’ in the family: Insanity and institutions in the Australasian colonial world 1860s-1914 (Palgrave, 2010). I see this as an important contribution to social and cultural histories of insanity, institutions and families, as well as to discussions about archival sources, finding emotions in the archive, and the patterns of institutional treatment of the insane in the colonial world.

As part of my new research into ethnicity, migration and insanity, part of a larger study with Professor Angela McCarthy at the University of Otago, I am currently immersed in a large dataset of archival cases from one psychiatric institution, looking for hidden and open references to ethnicity, gender and class, building on the rich scholarship of American historians of earlier decades, including Gerald Grob, who examined questions of inequality and the treatment of the insane. Together McCarthy and I produced the edited collection Migration, Ethnicity, and Mental Health: International Perspectives, 1840-2010 (Routledge, 2012). Those constant themes of power, social and cultural difference, and how both the institution and the archive reflect and produce such ‘identities’, continue to fascinate me. Mental health and illness, and the institutions used to confine and treat the mentally ill, provide a way for historians to encounter the disenfranchised peoples of the past. Even more powerfully, by engaging as historians with present debates about deinstitutionalisation and community care, and by becoming involved in writing and producing histories of twentieth-century mental health care, historians can actively interrogate the power structures of the past and their enduring legacies in the present. Increasingly, through community projects and engagements, I am moving towards a deeper awareness of the role and function of psychiatric history in our current moment.

Many thanks to Cathy for sharing with us her intellectual trajectory!

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