How I became a historian of psychiatry: Edward Shorter

For the second installment of the “How I became a historian of psychiatry” series, Edward Shorter, Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, author among others of A History of Psychiatry from the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac (1997) and From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era (1992), kindly shares his intellectual biography with the H-Madness community:

This story began in 1967 when, a fresh young history PhD graduate, I came to the University of Toronto.  I had been trained as a social historian and after several projects far away from the history of medicine, in 1975 I wrote a general history of the family, not that it was such a medical contribution – but it called my attention to a number of medical issues in the lives of women historically:  infected abortion, weariness from overwork, and iron-deficiency anemia.  This led to a history of women’s health care (Women’s Bodies) in 1982.  This was full-blast medical history, but researching it made me aware that I knew almost nothing of medicine.  So I went to medical school for two years, taking all the basic medical sciences.

I now felt better equipped to take on a big problem: the history of psychosomatic illness, especially “hysteria,” mainly in women, over the centuries.  Knowing something about medicine was helpful here because of the difficulty in sorting out symptoms that are psychogenic (“hysteria”) from those that are organic-medical, such as endometriosis, often dubbed “hysterical” in the past.  This research resulted in From Paralysis to Fatigue (1992).

I was now thoroughly enmeshed in psychiatry, and went on to write a general history of the discipline, which appeared in 1997 and was read by a number of psychiatrists.  I became friendly with several whose work I greatly admired, and who subsequently influenced the direction of my own studies, in particular David Healy, Max Fink, Bernard Carroll, Tom Ban, Tom Bolwig, and Gordon Parker.  Animated email exchanges with this group produced a sharp research interest on my part in two themes: the history of diagnosis (nosology), and the history of psychiatric medications (psychopharmacology).  This led to a string of publications: A History of Shock Therapy, with David Healy (2007), Before Prozac (2009), and Endocrine Psychiatry; Solving the Riddle of Melancholia (with Max Fink) in 2010.  My latest book, The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown – And How Everyone Became Depressed, will be published by Oxford early in 2013.  I should say that among contemporary historians of psychiatry there are also several whose work I have learned from, in particular Patrizia Guarnieri and Ian Dowbiggin.  Everyone in our field learned from Roy Porter.

There are two points of more general interest in this cascade of self-esteem: (1) Historians of psychiatry have a real contribution to make to clinical psychiatric diagnosis, subject as it is to the buffeting of fashion and fad; that contribution lies in surveying the enormous historical experience of psychiatry to see which diagnoses seem to correspond most closely to natural disease entities.  (2) Psychiatric historians also have a contribution to make to therapeutics, because many past therapies have been discarded not because they were unsafe or ineffective, but because the patents expired!  Or because (as in the case of electroconvulsive therapy) society turned against them for non-scientific reasons.  Or because, as in the case of the barbiturates, makers of newer drug classes scorned them in advertising as old-fashioned and risky.

Among my current interests are pediatric catatonia and self-injury behavior in autism, and the extent to which they have been relieved in the past with ECT; the early “tranquilizers” and sedatives, discarded as effective treatments largely because of psychiatric urban myths of various kinds; and melancholia as a distinctive illness in its own right with characteristic biological markers.  I find this research tremendously exciting, and hope that historian colleagues will become involved. 

Many thanks, Edward Shorter, for sharing this story!

New H-Madness series – “How I became a historian of psychiatry”: Hans Pols

In the spirit of reminding ourselves and others why our field is so fascinating, H-Madness is launching a new series entitled “How I became a historian of psychiatry“. Since this is such a unique and inter-disciplinary field, we thought it would be fun to find out how various scholars (often accidentally) landed into this career path.

To launch the series, Hans Pols, Associate Professor in the Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney and H-Madness editor, shares with us his own intellectual biography:

I was born in a small village in the Netherlands in the 1960s. At the time, several relatively large mental hospitals operated in the Netherlands and I grew up next to one. During my childhood, I quickly became aware of several advantages of this situation. The woods around the hospital were deserted—hardly anyone went there for recreational walking. It thereby became ideal territory for me and my friends to build huts, blaze new trails, hide treasures, and make new discoveries. Of course, we often bumped into patients who were working in the hospital gardens, and later I realized I had been observing the many side-effects of the medications that were then used to treat mental illness (or, at least, diminish the symptoms). This did not always work and at times the screaming of patients in isolation cells could be heard. Even though I have been very close to the many pavilions of the mental hospital, its inner workings remained mysterious to me. I probably did not want to imagine what took place there.

Occupational therapy was implemented widely in this mental hospital, as patients worked in the gardens and built all kinds of things in the many workshops. My family bought many pieces of furniture there. I noticed a change in approach when we could no longer just order pieces of furniture but had to wait and see whether a patient wanted to take the project on. Democracy in the workshop probably benefited the patients working there, even if it inconvenienced an impatient teenager.

The annual fête was of course the highlight of the year. There were lots of fun activities, games, and competitions, the highlight of which was the soccer match between the physicians and the other employees of the mental hospital (the physicians always lost). Stuffed animals, toys, artworks, and other things made by patients were offered for sale. At times even well-known Dutch pop groups (naturally unknown anywhere else in the world) would perform.

Next to the mental hospital was an institution for children with mental retardation. Initially I did not notice them very much. One day, a new treatment method was implemented in our neighborhood: three residential units were built there, with the aim of bringing inhabitants closer to the community. Our chickens benefited enormously, as inhabitants came by quite regularly with left-over food for them. This residential project has now been phased out, as treatment fashions have changed once again.

My connection with the mental hospital was quite close, in particular because my father worked in the out-patient clinic there. Naturally, I was quite proud that my father did not lock people up but actually made them better so they could stay at home. My interest grew even stronger when I overheard many discussions between my father and my aunt, who was a psychoanalyst. She thought my father’s eclectic and Rogerian approach would do no good because it ignored the fundamental insights of Sigmund Freud. The high point of her life was when she attended a play when Jeanne Lampl-de Groot (who had been analyzed by Freud himself) was in the audience as well. The many endless discussions between my father and my aunt allowed me to develop, at an early age, the skill to bring up topics of conversation (such as new girlfriends, accomplishments at school, or family scandals) that would focus their attention of more appetizing topics.

Entering university brought me in contact with the theories of Michel Foucault, which I read with my fellow students. Our resolve to understand his work fully was reinforced by our perception that our philosophy teachers had discouraged us from reading his work—there are, naturally, distinctive rewards for being subversive. I also read some theories about the psychologization of Western society—theories which state that psychiatrists had taken the place of priests and ministers in exerting social control. Such theories shed a whole new light on my father’s work—rather than merely helping patients, he was part of a vast and powerful conspiracy that determined the innermost aspects of human subjectivity. At that point, I knew what I wanted to do: I planned to unearth the origins of that vast conspiracy and reveal its inner workings. To finish up my studies in the Netherlands I wrote a thesis on how the power of the catholic church in the Netherlands was reduced through their reliance on psychotherapists (who promised to clear up a general level of immaturity among wayward catholics, which would make these people more appreciative of the church once again; unfortunately when they matured, they ran from the church in droves). After that I moved to North America to investigate the history of the mental hygiene movement. After all, the psy-complex came from the United States and its most powerful embodiment was this movement.

After several years of research, I realized that the rhetoric of the mental hygienists I investigated surely matched my wildest dreams—but their accomplishments were far more modest than their rhetoric. I also became aware that several other forces (be they a modern capitalism, a culture of consumption, the mass media, or narcissism) could be responsible for the social changes for which I had blamed psychiatry. In addition, I realized that Western society was far less psychologized than I once thought—Manhattan and parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where every self-respecting individual would occupy a couch for at least a few years, had surely been taken over by the psy-complex, but many other places in America (i.e. the mid-West) and the rest of the so-called civilized world had proven to be far more resilient. And how could it have been any different? Mental hygienists, after all, were a small minority among psychiatrists, and a minority that received hardly any respect to boot. In addition, psychiatrists have long been one of the least respected medical specialties. How could a minority within one of the least respected medical specialties muster the power to reshape western culture? Naturally, more bizarre things have happened, but they would need to be explained by arguments coming from outside the historical profession. I now became utterly fascinated by the interest psychiatrists had in the work of some of the followers of Foucault. If they could not be saviors of humankind, they could at least be its villains?

Even though my early hunches about psychiatry and the psy-complex had proven to be mostly unfounded, the discipline continued to pique my intellectual interests by challenging earlier ideas and assumptions. Ironically, I had become interested in the psychologization of Western society when psychiatry was increasingly becoming biological in orientation (and, predictably, many commentators have started discussing the psychopharmacologization of Western society). In a relatively short period of time, an interest in the mind and a focus on psychotherapy lost its dominance, to be overtaken by an interest in the inner workings of the brain and the pharmacological treatment of its aberrations (leading to today’s almost religious interest in the brain as the organ that can explain the full range of human behavior).  Mental hygienists had at least emphasized social and cultural factors—and the few radicals among them had focused on political and economic variables. Somehow psychiatry seemed to respond rather quickly to such changes—or was it that social commentators with great interest in psychiatry had changed their opinions? Everyday psychiatry probably changed less rapidly than psychiatry as it was presented in the media. And everyday psychiatrists are probably baffled about all the claims made in the media about their profession.

Marrying a psychiatrist provided me with new insights on the profession. When my future wife first visited my office, she was completely shell-shocked after browsing through several books detailing the evils of psychiatry. A few weeks later, when she was on call, I overheard her having several conversations in which her sole aim was to keep people out of the psychiatric ward of the hospital (which was already filled to capacity). Instead of revealing an impulse related to the great confinement, she deftly and strategically made decisions on how the resources of the hospital could best be made available. This also opened my eyes that many individuals wish to be admitted—for a variety of reasons, most of which are not related to the actual benefits admission could provide. Today, it appears that the demand for psychiatric services (in particular psychiatric medications) far outstrips what can realistically be expected of them. Similarly, the popularity of brain-based explanations of behavior far outstrips what scientific research has proven. In other words, there is a not entirely wholesome public fascination with psychiatry which does not correspond to the ways psychiatrists view what they are able to deliver.

As is apparent from these statements, I have been fascinated by psychiatry and psychiatrists for most of my life, although the reasons for my interests have changed over time. I can certainly see myself retaining this interest for the foreseeable future.

Hans Pols

Unit for History and Philosophy of Science

University of Sydney

Many thanks to Hans for sharing his experience with us. More to come soon!

Film Review – A Dangerous Method. Directed by David Cronenberg, Sony Pictures 2011

By Geoffrey Cocks

One of the characteristics of the psychoanalytic movement in Central Europe during the early twentieth century was the often important professional role played by women as theorists, practitioners, and patients.  One of those who performed in all three roles was Sabina Spielrein, an intellectually gifted woman from an affluent Russian Jewish background studying in Zurich and suffering from childhood traumata.  Spielrein was to play a particularly important role in the early and ultimately broken relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  Tyrannized by her own father, she would become Jung’s patient, colleague, and lover; one means for Jung to confront (or not) his own father issues; and, as a psychoanalyst herself the most important source for the articulation of the death instinct by a Freud beset with his own unresolved conflicts regarding his mother.  Freud’s version of Spielrein’s death instinct, formulated in the heaving wake of the First World War, would itself become part of the basis for object relations theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and feminist psychoanalytic sociology, all three of which conceived of the mother as the source of fundamental male discontent over desire for—and separation from—the original caretaker.  In the mid-twentieth century such and similar dynamics would coalesce with historical trends, events, and disasters in German history in particular to drive Hitler and his Nazi brethren to inflict anxious and murderous violence upon millions of human beings.  Among these millions of victims was Sabina Spielrein who, in the early months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was, together with her two daughters, among the Jews in Rostov-on-Don who were rounded up and shot.

Based primarily on clinical psychologist John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud. And Sabina Spielrein (1993), A Dangerous Method begins on August 17, 1904.  A hysterical young woman is being transported by coach to the Cantonal Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic of Zürich, famously and widely known under the direction of Eugen Bleuler as the Burghölzli Clinic.  The woman is Sabina Spielrein, who is to be treated there by means of the “talking cure” pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna.  As historian Peter Loewenberg has argued, the Burghölzli was a model scientific community in which new methods of psychiatry, in particular psychoanalysis, were cultivated.  One of the young men attracted to this creative scientific environment was a young follower of Freud’s method by the name of Carl Jung.  It is he who will supervise Spielrein’s treatment.  She will sit in a chair and he will sit in a chair located behind her.  Jung instructs her not to turn around but simply to talk about what she recalls about her life.  It is in this scene that the limitations of the film genre are most manifest.  Within less than three minutes of conversation—and one significant silence on the patient’s part—Jung elicits the core trauma of Spielrein’s childhood:  beatings by her father.  In a subsequent scene only two minutes are required for her to reveal that she was sexually aroused by the beatings and ever after would feel the urge to masturbate in response to any instance of emotional stress.  This elision of much of the hard, time-consuming work of mining the unconscious has the dramaturgical advantage, however, of drawing the viewer swiftly and surely into the pathos of the story the film has to tell.  The screenplay (written by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure [2002]) also includes one nice bit of parapraxis that emphasizes the content of unconscious emotion constituting a continuous individual history.  This is a very quickly spoken slip of the tongue by Spielrein as she describes how she began to seek out humiliation in order to experience arousal:  “I looked for any humiliation—even here.  You hit my cock with your stick.”  Suddenly the past (“looked”) has become the present (“even here”) and vice-versa in a classic psychoanalytic instance of transference, whereby the analyst becomes the object toward whom the patient expresses emotions connected with someone in the past.  Moreover, for the dramatic purposes of the film the future too is invoked since Spielrein and Jung will become lovers.  The nonsense statement (“my cock . . . your stick”) collapses the stick carried by the father (also his penis) into Jung’s (“your”), “my cock” representing her wish for possession of the penis as well as a rhetorical reversal that represents denial of the wish for sexual intercourse with Jung, her father, and any or all men.  She concludes:  “There’s no hope for me.  I’m vile.”

The first thing to say historically about what is to follow in the film is that there is no hard evidence that Jung and Spielrein had a sexual relationship, which included his indulgence of her masochism.  (Later, in 1910, when Spielrein comes to Jung’s home in Küsnacht for help with publication of her dissertation—and eventually they resume their sadomasochistic sex—Jung says that on Tuesday next “I’ll start ripping you to shreds.”)  Spielrein broadcast this relationship and kept a diary of it.  Today Freudians generally affirm the affair while Jungians generally deny it.  So-called “boundary issues” are a common occupational hazard in psychoanalysis wherein emotional involvement is central to treatment.  This was particularly the case in the early “frontier days” of psychoanalytic practice.  Also relevant in this regard is that the married Jung would later have a long-term sexual relationship with patient and colleague Toni Wolff.  In any case, the film presents the relationship as fact, beginning with Sabina’s invitation and Carl’s arrival one evening at her apartment door.  She—and the screenplay—in full psychoanalytic double-entendre mode tell him to “Come inside.”

It was this baggage that Jung carried with him to his first meeting with Freud.  The film shows Jung arriving in Vienna on March 3, 1906, but as Jung scholar Jay Sherry has pointed out, this meeting actually took place in 1907.  The film, again in indirect psychoanalytic fashion, hints at Jung’s own struggles with sexuality when it shows him at a dinner with an observant Freud and a tableful of astonished dinner guests, heaping his plate with mounds of food and vigorously gulping it all down.  The film seems to suggest that Jung’s insistence to Freud that psychoanalysis be a means of questing at mystical and eternal verities behind and beyond sexuality constituted unconscious denial of his own current and ongoing sexual needs, indulgences, and conflicts.  The film even provides in this respect a diaboli ex machina in the figure of Otto Gross, a brilliant but unstable psychoanalyst Freud had sent to Jung for treatment who appalls but also tempts Jung with his celebration of drug addiction and unrepressed sexuality.

The shadow of the coming World War—we know it of course—but the characters—and/or of course the filmmakers—too “sense” something terrible is in the offing.  In 1913 Jung, who believes, among other things, in premonitions, relates to a married and pregnant Sabina his recurrent dream of an apocalyptic flood from the North Sea that engulfs all of Europe and turns to blood, “the blood of Europe.”  And even more distant things, more terrible than the Great War.  Freud tells Spielrein to remember that they are Jews and that she should not put her trust in a fantasy of “mystical union with a blond Aryan” like Jung.  Indeed.  The concluding bits of text that are now standard in historical films tell us, over music from Wagner’s Siegfried, that Otto Gross starved to death in Berlin in 1919.  That Freud “was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died of cancer in London in 1939.”  And that Spielrein was taken by the Nazis to a synagogue in Rostov and murdered.  As for Jung:  He suffered from “a prolonged nervous breakdown during the First World War” and later became “the world’s leading psychologist.”  There is no mention of the fact that Jung for some years in the 1930s associated himself with a group of non-Jewish psychotherapists and psychoanalysts who established an institute for psychotherapy in Nazi Berlin under the leadership of a relative of Hermann Göring.


Geoffrey Cocks teaches at Albion College and is the author of numerous works, including
Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The Göring Institute, 2nd ed. (Transaction 1997) and most recently The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany (Oxford 2012).

Journée d’étude – Les usages sociaux des sciences du cerveau (Paris)

Journée d’étude

Les usages sociaux des sciences du cerveau

Collaboration de MSH Paris Nord / New York University in Paris

15 mai 2012


 

Programme

Présentation / introduction

9.00 – 9.15

 

Usages sociaux des savoirs « pré-neuroscientifiques »

9.15 – 9.45 : Rafael Mandressi (CAK, CNRS) : “Usages sociaux et politiques des savoirs “pré-neuroscientifiques” sur le cerveau”

9.45 –  10.15 : Yves Cartuyvels (Fac. St Louis, Bruxelles), « Usages  sociaux d’une lecture biologique du crime à la fin du XIXe »

Discutant : Marc Renneville

10.15 – 11.00 : Discussion

Le genre des neurosciences

11.15 – 11.50 : Rebecca Jordan-Young (Barnard College, New York), « Hardwired for Sexism »

11.50 – 12.20 : Catherine Vidal (Institut Pasteur), « Ordre social et ordre neuronal »

 

12.20 – 13.00 : Discussion

Usages sociaux des neurosciences (1) : le marketing

14.00 – 14.30 : Didier Courbet (Univ. Aix-Marseille 1) : “Neuromarketing et neurosciences au service des publicitaires : questionnements éthiques”

Discutant : Sébastien Lemerle

 

14.30 – 15.00 : Discussion

 

Usages sociaux des neurosciences (2) : l’école

15.00 – 15.30 : Stanislas Morel (Univ. St Etienne), « Neurosciences cognitives et pédagogie »

15.30 – 16.00 : Marianne Woollven (ENS Lyon/Centre Max Weber), « Que se passe-t-il dans le cerveau dyslexique ? Les difficultés en lecture au prisme des sciences du cerveau »

16.00 – 16.30 : Grégoire Molinatti (Univ. Montpellier), « Neurosciences et éducation : quelles épistémologies, quelle théorie du sujet, quelles normativités ? »

Discutant : Samuel Lézé

 

16.30 – 17.30 : Discussion et conclusion

Discutante : Dominique Memmi

New York University, 56 rue de Passy, Paris 16e arrondissement (métro La Muette ou Passy)

The Wolf Man – Graphic Freud

The Guardian contains an article about writer Richard Appignanesi and artist Slawa Harasymowicz’s latest project, a graphic novel entitled The Wolf Man, inspired by Freud’s famous case study.

The accompanying video, featuring interviews with Appignanesi and Harasymowicz, but also psychoanalyst and historian Daniel Pick as well as publisher Emma Hayley, contains various images from the graphic novel.

To access the article and video, click here.

Exhibit review – “In memory of the children. Pediatrics and crimes against children in the Nazi period.” Topography of Terror Documentation Center, Berlin, 18 January – 20 May 2012

By Stephanie Neuner

In recent years considerable research has been conducted on children as victims of the “euthanasia” crimes in Nazi Germany. Remarkable results have been achieved in naming perpetrators, tracing back life stories of victims, and unveiling structures and procedures of the patients’ murder. It is clear by now that more than 10.000 children and adolescents – mainly coming from the lower and middle class[i] – were killed actively or passively within the framework of “euthanasia”. The German Society of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine initiated the temporary exhibition “In memory of the children” presently shown at the Topography of Terror Documentation Center to document these crimes according to the current state of historical research, and equally importantly, to commemorate the victims.

Entering the exhibition space the visitor instantly becomes aware of a large-sized illustrated panel that divides the venue into two sections. Close-up photographs portray under-age inmates of a mental asylum on the one side and physicians being accused of their crimes after 1945 on the other side. The installation might not have explicitly been planned as an introduction – but it nevertheless serves quite well as such. Looking at the photographs one thought immediately crosses the viewer’s mind: They are foremost about individuals and their scope of action – the responsibility of the perpetrators and the helplessness of those children who were left completely unprotected. This first impression is strongly confirmed by historical facts as soon as one takes one’s eyes off this central scene and delves into the exhibition’s actual contents. Here,   the visitor is confronted with the suffering and the death of children, and with the physicians’ massive violation of ethical boundaries in their treatment of the boys and girls entrusted to their care.

As detailed biographical information and medical data are presented one gets very close to the children’s individual fates. One case the exhibition documents in exemplary fashion is that of Guenther, who was ten years old when he was gassed within the framework of the centralized “euthanasia” program “T4”. Nazi welfare services considered his family “a-social” and “hereditarily defective”, and the boy was therefore placed in foster care. Against his parents’ explicit will, he was committed to mental asylums in Potsdam and Georden (Brandenburg). In 1940 it was decided at the Berlin “T4 Headquarters” to murder him. Guenther’s case and the motivation for his murder are elucidated in the catalogue by Petra Fuchs[ii]. Referring to essential results of historical research, she points out that the decision to kill the boy was not only taken on grounds of the contemporary diagnosis “imbecility” but mainly due to a negative prognosis regarding his capacity to be educated and to support himself. It was thus predominantly the assumed degree of future social and financial dependence of the child that motivated his killing.

The “T4 Action” was only one of several institutional settings where medical crimes against children took place. Besides the killing of physically and mentally handicapped children within this framework of centralized “euthanasia”, hundreds of the under-aged died in pediatric and psychiatric sections of hospitals through the denial of treatment, deliberate starvation, or deadly injections. They were sent to especially established “Children’s Departments” at clinics where they were medically observed and tested, before they were killed primarily through the sedatives Luminal or Bromural. As exemplified by the “Research Facility” at the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Department, those “child subjects” (“Forschungskinder”) were murdered in order to put their corpses at the disposal  of brain research projects.[iii] Furthermore, the exhibition focuses on medical experiments on epidemic jaundice and TB in concentration camps, which principally offered “extra-legal space”[iv] for ethically uninhibited medical research on their prisoners. As the authors of the catalogue underline, these tests “should not be seen as pseudo-medical experiments, since most of them corresponded in terms of their purposes and methods to the state of scientific practice at that time”.[v] In this context, the exhibition documents the case of four-year-old Wolfgang who was infected with tuberculosis pathogens in the concentration camp Neuengamme southeast of Hamburg. His large-sized medical chart is presented on a table-like case that enables the visitor to study it in detail, while explanations are given in order to understand the curves with their peaks and valleys. Now the visitor himself turns into an observer of parameters like temperature, medication, food intake and defecation. This interactive module allows us to get in touch with both the “doctors’ gaze” (M. Foucault) and the suffering of the four-year-old boy. It represents an educational highlight of this exhibition.

Besides touchscreens on “Hereditary Teaching and Racial Science” and the geographical spread of “Special Pediatric Sections” throughout Nazi Germany, the exhibition tries to communicate its themes primarily through reproduced documents and photographs mounted on horizontal panels. This form of presentation matches the design of the permanent exhibition of the document center. Considering the venue’s topic it is certainly appropriate to abstain from any effect-seeking scenography and choose an unobtrusive design. However, the exhibition’s design would have benefited from more visual elements that would help to identify key aspects or make it easier to follow the various threads of the exhibition. Considering the great number of international visitors to the document center it is a real pity that documents such as patient records are often not translated into English – not even in extracts. Generally, the exhibition aims at mediating the enormous amount of knowledge that has been researched within the last years from a primarily biographical perspective. This approach is combined both with explanation on organizational processes within the context of Nazi health policy and information on the entanglement of contemporary medical science with eugenic thinking and racial ideology. Taking into account the rather small space that is offered to the temporary venue, the task of both documenting the topic in its broad diversity and of communicating all this to the visitor is of course very ambitious.

As is to be expected, the exhibition leaves the visitor with lots of questions, which the excellent catalogue, edited by Thomas Beddies, attempts to provide answers for.[vi] It includes five valuable articles (with English translation) written by historians who are known as specialists in the field of “euthanasia” crimes in Nazi Germany. The children’s fates become again manifest in the catalogue, especially since the authors reflect individual stories from the deeply diverse perspectives of parents, doctors and attendants. They thus draw a very coherent picture of the particular cases.

It is the most painful and finally lethal experience of 4-year old Wolfgang that sticks in my mind after I have left the exhibition. The victim’s stories are very moving and their suffering stands in harsh contrast to the absence of empathy on the side of the pediatricians who participated in the medical crimes in Nazi Germany.

Stephanie Neuner is a historian currently involved into a research project at the Institute for the History of Medicine at the University Wuerzburg, Germany. Before she had worked several years for the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, Germany. She studied history and politics at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and Edinburgh University. One of her main research interests focus on the cultural history of psychiatry. Her recently published book, Politik und Psychiatrie. Die staatliche Versorgung psychisch Kriegsbeschädigter in Deutschland 1920-39 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2011) deals with compensation policies towards psychologically disabled veterans of WWI in the Weimar Republic and the Nazi State.

[i] S. Topp, “The murder of handicapped children and youth in the Reich Committee Procedure (1939-1945)”, in Im Gedenken der Kinder – Die Kinderärzte und die Verbrechen an Kindern in der NS-Zeit/In memory of the children – Pediatricians and crimes against children in the Nazi period, exhibition catalogue, ed. by T. Beddies on behalf of the German Society of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (DGKJ) (Berlin 2012), p. 13-19, here p. 18.
[ii] P. Fuchs, ”Action T4” – Children and youth as victims of the Nazi’s centralized “euthanasia” program (1940/41), in ibid., p. 20-26.
[iii] See M. Rotzoll, V. Roelcke, G. Hohendorf, “Deadly experiments on children – Carl Schneider’s “Research Facility” at the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Department (1943/44)”, in ibid., p. 35-42.
[iv] A. Ley, ”Children as victims of medical experiments in concentration camps, in ibid., p. 43-52, here p. 51.
[v] Ibid., p.44
[vi] See note 1.

Current article

The UC Disability Studies Blog compiles a monthly list of recently published historical articles about the broadly-defined concept of “disability”. This month, the list includes an article by Linda Reeder entitled “Unattached and Unhinged: The Spinster and the Psychiatrist in Liberal Italy, 1860-1922” (Gender & History, April 2012). Its abstract reads:

This article explores the role nineteenth-century Italian psychiatric sciences played in shaping attitudes towards adult women who never married. Initially in post-unification Italy unmarried women were largely invisible, while the bachelor appeared to threaten the newly formed nation’s fragile political and social stability. In the last decades of the nineteenth century fears about the bachelor faded, replaced by growing concerns about the social dangers posed by the `spinster’. Drawing on writings from psychiatrists, anthropologists, sociologists, on patient records from psychiatric asylums as well as popular literature, this article traces the way psychiatric practice and theories transformed the image of the unmarried single woman.

To access the article on the journal’s website, click here.

For the entire list on the UC Disability Studies blog, click here.

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