Inheriting Madness: Professionalization and Psychiatric Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France

Inheriting Madness: Professionalization and Psychiatric Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France

Inheriting Madness: Professionalization and Psychiatric Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France

Inheriting Madness: Professionalization and Psychiatric Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France

Synopsis

Historically, one of the recurring arguments in psychiatry has been that heredity is the root cause of mental illness. In Inheriting Madness, Ian Dowbiggin traces the rise in popularity of hereditarianism in France during the second half of the nineteenth century to illuminate the nature and evolution of psychiatry during this period.

In Dowbiggin's mind, this fondness for hereditarianism stemmed from the need to reconcile two counteracting factors. On the one hand, psychiatrists were attempting to expand their power and privileges by excluding other groups from the treatment of the mentally ill. On the other hand, medicine's failure to effectively diagnose, cure, and understand the causes of madness made it extremely difficult for psychiatrists to justify such an expansion. These two factors, Dowbiggin argues, shaped the way psychiatrists thought about insanity, encouraging them to adopt hereditarian ideas, such as the degeneracy theory, to explain why psychiatry had failed to meet expectations. Hereditarian theories, in turn, provided evidence of the need for psychiatrists to assume more authority, resources, and cultural influence.

Inheriting Madness is a forceful reminder that psychiatric notions are deeply rooted in the social, political, and cultural history of the profession itself. At a time when genetic interpretations of mental disease are again in vogue, Dowbiggin demonstrates that these views are far from unprecedented, and that in fact they share remarkable similarities with earlier theories. A familiarity with the history of the psychiatric profession compels the author to ask whether or not public faith in it is warranted.

Excerpt

If cancer is arguably the disease of the twentieth century, then it is equally arguable that mental illness was the disease of the nineteenth century. Or so thought the French republican deputy Leon Gambetta. Speaking before the Corps législatif on 21 March 1870, Gambetta claimed that public concern over the rising number of hospitalized lunatics and the incapacity of asylum psychiatrists to tame insanity was mounting “to the point,” he stressed, “where madness seems to be the disease of the century.” Gambetta may not have been far wrong. Like cancer in this century, mental illness in the nineteenth century sparked public fear and revulsion and symbolized mystery and the limits of human power. Physicians knew little about what caused it, what its ultimate nature was, or how to cure it, but they still insisted that the best interests of those who suffered from it were served by early diagnosis by members of organized medicine. Psychiatrists accused nonmedical people who tried to treat it of quackery and ignorance. They argued that mental disease was caused neither by sin nor by personal moral failure, yet they themselves relied on naturalist explanations that ultimately blamed individual life-style for mental illness. These and other contradictions in medical thinking about madness did not escape the notice of people like Gambetta, who concluded that psychiatrists posed a grave threat to public health, self-reliance, and individual freedom.

No theory of mental disease enjoyed as much popularity in the nineteenth century as that of mental degeneracy. According to this theory certain families suffered a steady though not necessarily irre-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.