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Book and Media Reviews
February 18, 2009

History of Psychiatry and Medical Psychology

JAMA. 2009;301(7):781-782. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.101

I am convinced that psychiatrists could be good students of history—if by history is meant the awareness of how things change through lived time and epochs, including individuals, places, and ideology. Psychiatry has undergone several sweeping self-reexaminations of its founding philosophies. Among the medical specialties, psychiatry may be the most visible example of the effects of time on the understanding of disease states.

However, in medical education, the history of psychiatry is often neglected, perhaps because it is thought that young physicians may not be interested in a present analysis of past events. Also, the writing of the history of psychiatry, if Wallace and Gach's new book is to be believed, is neither for the fainthearted nor for the amateur. For one thing, Wallace criticizes previous works of psychiatric history written by “authorities without qualification,” and he defines qualification as being grounded in the history of civilizations—a point well taken, especially when, further on in this book, it becomes amply clear that Western intellectual history is the template on which the history of psychiatry is traced. Potential psychiatric historians would be better off doing their homework on Foucault and Descartes. Standards of historiographic competence seem to have progressed since Herodotus, the “father of history,” who, in his account of the Persian wars, often digresses, shamelessly opines, and chats about the truly mundane in addition to telling the story of these wars.

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