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History of Psychiatry and Psychology Postgraduate Conference: 19 March 2011

As previously announced, around forty early career researchers from around the world recently attended a conference at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL on the history of psychiatry and psychology, indicating the breadth of interest in, and relevance of, the field. Many of these presented their own research, which included the exploration of issues such as gender, citizenship, therapeutics, medication, and the social implications and understandings of mental illness from Ancient Mesopotamia to twentieth century Communist Yugoslavia.

These short presentations showed the pertinence of the topics explored to social, political and medical issues today. Thus, in a paper entitled Disabling Democracy, Rabia Belt from the University of Michigan explored the ways in which categories of mental deficiency entered the constitutions of the forty US states which currently prevent those with any form of mental impairment from voting. Many of these rulings still use the nineteenth-century terminology of “insanity” and “idiocy” and, moreover, have been heavily indicated in wider political concerns. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, American Indians, African Americans, and women were at various times regarded as unfit for suffrage and full political citizenship because of alleged mental deficiencies.

Similarly, Yoshiya Makita from the University of Tokyo investigated the ways in which medical notions of mental retardation entered the political arena in early twentieth century Japan, where ideas of disability intersected with those of class, criminality, and citizenship through emerging state control. In a paper which may well be of interest to those who visited our Phantasmagoria exhibition last year, Max Gawlich of the University of Heidelberg described how mescaline intoxication became viewed as a “model psychosis” by researchers in Heidelberg in the 1920s (late nineteenth century experimenters with mescaline had not, it seems, assumed that the hallucinations produced by the drug were necessarily the same as those experienced in a psychotic episode), and the ways in which their experiments were entangled with and embedded into historical, social and cultural contexts.

Participants in the conference indicated a keen interest in setting up a virtual research network, enabling easy communication of information and ideas across continents. This will begin with an H-net list for the history of psychiatry, providing an informal environment for discussion of issues, like those above, which appear of extreme importance to twenty-first-century society. More to follow soon...