How I Became a Historian of Psychiatry: Andrew Scull

We are delighted to have Andrew Scull participate in our H-Madness series “How I Became a Historian of Psychiatry”. Scull, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UC San Diego, has authored numerous books including Museums of Madness; Decarceration; The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700-1900; Masters of Bedlam and, most recently, Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, and from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine (2015). In 2015, he received the Roy Porter Medal for lifetime contributions to the history of medicine, and in 2016, he will receive the Eric T. Carlson award for lifetime contributions to the history of psychiatry.

It is fair to say that I first became a historian of psychiatry by accident. I have remained one by choice, and continue to be fascinated by the subject, and by the rich array of scholarship it has generated over the past four decades, a period where I think the subject has grown to intellectual maturity.

Let me explain the first sentence a bit. My father was demobilized after the Second World War having learned to be a land surveyor in the Royal Engineers. He then joined the Ordnance Survey, an outfit that maps the British Isles.  That meant a peripatetic existence that lasted for nearly a decade. I was born in Edinburgh in Scotland because that was where my parents happened to be at the time, but we soon moved south, and then, in the mid-fifties, moved much further afield to colonial Africa, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to be a bit more precise. I spent three years there before we moved back to England when I was eleven and I began attending a local grammar school, from which I graduated seven years later. I read omnivorously as a child, and though my father had left formal education at 14, ours was luckily a house full of books and newspapers.  From an early age, I was fascinated with history. At age thirteen, I faced a choice that reflected the defects of attending a small rural school: I either had to opt for the sciences or the arts. Given my emerging love of history, I chose the latter, and the choice has worked out well for me, but as I look back on things, it was a crazy choice (forgive me) to force on an adolescent.

At school, I won an open scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, becoming the first in my family to attend university. The history tripos at Oxford in those days was very old fashioned, and I chose instead a degree in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics), a course of study that also included some 19th century history and a smattering of sociology. Most British students spend their undergraduate years studying a single subject. My choice of degree meant I had a much broader grounding in philosophy and the social sciences, and Oxford was a time of exciting intellectual challenges and growth. As it was also the time of the Vietnam War and the events of the sixties, it was also a time that reinforced my existing left wing political sympathies, though unlike some of the privileged people I now mingled with, I was never attracted to the sectarian politics of the various Trotskyite and Maoist sorts that then infected the place.

The first (happy) accident that took place during these years was meeting the person who would become my wife – a young American who was spending a sophomore year abroad studying at Oxford. It was that romantic entanglement that persuaded me to move to the United States for doctoral work. Given the hard times that would soon befall the British academic scene, that too was fortunate for my career prospects, though our initial intent was to move eventually back to Britain. In those days, even Oxford academics rarely travelled to North America, and they snobbishly looked down their noses at American universities, about which they knew very little. I confined my choices of graduate schools to the East Coast, because that was where my girlfriend was in college, and when I was fortunate to be offered admission to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, my advisors told me that it really didn’t matter which I chose – they were all much of a muchness.

I chose Princeton, and in many ways that was a mistake, though a lucky one, as it turned out.  I had chosen to do graduate work in sociology, which in those days was briefly more open to historical work than much of it now is, and the subject struck me as sufficiently amorphous as to allow me to pursue my intellectual interests wherever they led.  But by now I had a considerable interest in post-war French politics, acquired in my Oxford years, and I expected to pursue that interest in my doctoral work.  At Princeton, however, I found no-one in either the sociology or the political science departments with whom I wanted to work on the subject.  Indeed, the Princeton sociology department was in those days in a pretty parlous state, unless one wanted to become a demography, which was certainly not something that interested me.

The graduate students in the years above me recommended a particular young associate professor named Robert Scott, who taught on deviance and social control, and with some misgivings, I enrolled in his seminar and read an array of work I would never have otherwise encountered. I read Erving Goffman on asylums, and Thomas Scheff’s work on labelling and mental illness (a perspective I immediately found wanting). But pursuing my long-standing interests in history, I also read Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (the truncated translation by Richard Howard and a book that was not yet famous in North America) and a new book by an American historian, David Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum, that was making quite a splash. I also read a more focused and less fashionable history of the Worcester State Hospital by Gerald Grob. By accident, then, I had discovered a topic I found fascinating.  Furthermore, when I investigated the historiography of developments in England in the nineteenth century I found it was rather thin. I had found a dissertation topic – and, though I did not then know it, a lifetime obsession.

Deciding to work on Victorian lunacy reform was perhaps an odd choice for a sociology PhD, but it had one great advantage for my wife and me: it provided an excuse to return to England for months of primary research in local archive offices and in mental hospital basements – perhaps not the most romantic of settings to work side-by-side (and I could not possibly now  afford the labour of the highly successful attorney my wife has now become), but in a perverse way we enjoyed it, and I fell in love with playing a historical detective.

Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, when I had nearly completed my thesis, I managed to secure a number of job offers in sociology departments. I had two members of the Princeton history department on my thesis committee, but did not seek a job in that discipline, which proved a good decision in some ways, since the market for historians of Britain was already drying up, and because historians are hired to plough down a narrower furrow than I would ever be comfortable with, sticking for the most part to a particular period and a particular national historiography. By contrast, the two sociology departments I have made my career in (I also, ironically, spent a year back in Princeton in its very fine history department), were open to having on their faculty someone who increasingly spent much of his time in researching the distant past, and imposed no limits on my scholarship.

When I made the rounds of the job market, and underwent the ritual of presenting my work, I was met on more than one occasion by questions about the present-day mental health scene. Occasionally, my interrogator, more knowledgeable than I (for I had been buried in nineteenth century materials) would suggest that, as a critic of the trajectory of Victorian museums of madness, I must be glad that we were now abandoning them. Were we, I wondered, and if so, why?

Settled in my first job at the University of Pennsylvania, I confronted a task I found distinctly unappetizing: transforming my sprawling dissertation into a publishable book. I baulked at the task, needing more distance from the text than I then had. So I took up the question of deinstitutionalization, and in relatively short order, wrote Decarceration. The book has its faults, as many first books do, but as I look back on it now (laying aside my youthful infatuation with neo-Marxist ideas like the fiscal crisis of the state), I think it got a surprising number of things right. “Community care” was the slogan of the moment, and it was all a grand reform that would usher the mad back into our welcoming midst, or so the ideologues of the movement would have it. It was the drugs that made it all possible, so the psychiatrists assured us, on the basis on no more than temporal coincidence and their own overweening confidence in chemical cures.  It was in part the product of the critical “anti-psychiatry” of people like Goffman and Szasz, claimed their followers. My book rejected or was sharply critical of all these claims, pointing to the limits of anti-psychotics and their many adverse effects, the non-existence of community care and the hostility and neglect that were the fate of discharged patients. It argued that what was happened was driven in great measure by fiscal concerns, and in the United States by the ability to transfer costs between levels of government. And it suggested that the rhetoric of reform masked what was an emerging policy of malign neglect. I think those criticisms have all held up rather well.

Completing Decarceration early in 1976, I had become convinced I needed more training in medical history than I had received in graduate school, where, truth to tell, I had perforce been largely self taught, and I was now fortunate enough to win an ACLS post-doctoral fellowship that allowed me a year in the Sub-Department of the History of Medicine at University College London, a small but vibrant collection of scholars led by Bill Bynum, who would go on to become the most distinguished and successful director for a decade and a half of the late, much lamented Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine – a setting I would spend a very happy year at five years later on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and would visit for shorter periods again and again for more than two decades. The year in London also allowed me to finish revising Museums of Madness, which Penguin Books then published.

My return to Penn in the fall of 1977 was a difficult one. In my absence, the department had had an external review of its graduate program, and the various factions among the senior faculty had aired a variety of grievances and dirty laundry in public. The atmosphere was poisonous, and to make matters worse, during the year, my closest friends in the department had come up for tenure and been denied. They were all frantically scouring the job market. Though it was still some two years before I might face the same fate, I decided not to wait: I love my work, but I found myself hating to go to the University, and that told me it was time to go. The Princeton History Department offered me the temporary lifeline of a year in its Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, and soon after that, the University of California at San Diego offered me a tenured position. Here I have been left free to follow my intellectual interests wherever they have taken me: to studies of the emergence of psychiatry as a profession; work on the mad trade in eighteenth century England, and on the complex relations between doctors, patients and families in eighteenth century London; the history of psychiatric therapeutics, and of experimentation on vulnerable mental patients; hysteria; the impact of World War II on American psychiatry, and much else besides, including, most recently, the ultimate scholarly chutzpah of producing a book on Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, and from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine. I shall be off to the Rockefeller Archives in a month, for I am already in the midst of my next project. The history of psychiatry continues to hold me in its thrall, and I bless the accidents that led me to this life-long obsession. More detective work beckons, more discoveries to make, more reflection on what I find, and the enormous pleasure of trying to render those discoveries into texts others may (I hope) find some pleasure and profit in reading.

Many thanks to Andrew Scull for sharing this story!

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