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Doody's Review ServiceReviewer: Philip W. Leon, PhD (The Citadel)
Description: Although the word dictionary appears in the title, do not expect to see entries with brief definitions. This book contains mini-essays arranged alphabetically with full explication and cross-referencing.
Purpose: Shorter wants his book to be an overview of the major personalities, localities, pharmacological developments, and trends in psychiatry, emphasizing the mid-nineteenth century to the present. He readily admits that he embraces a biological approach to psychiatry as opposed to psychoanalysis that once held sway in the field. In presenting the major influences in the field he answers questions such as "What is the current influence of Freud on modern psychiatry?" (Not much.) "What role have the large pharmaceutical companies played in bringing us to the present state of neuroscientific solutions to disorders of the brain and mind?" (An overwhelmingly influential one.) The author does a remarkable job of sorting out important issues without adopting a polemical tone; his entries inform but do not lecture. The reader who follows his skillful cross-references and subentries will find a chronology unfolding.
Audience: Intended for "clinicians and scientists today as well as for general readers who wish to know the origins of currently familiar concepts," this book is engagingly interesting and readable. The author is not hesitant to use metaphoric language, even if occasionally an editor should have sharpened the blue pencil: "The few provincial universities that acquired departments of psychiatry late in the nineteenth century were not really on anybody's radar." Well, nothing was on the nonexistent radar screen in the nineteenth century, was it?
Features: Some readers might feel that Shorter has "shorted" them by his omissions. The term "alienist," the nineteenth-century term for psychiatrist, is not listed. Given the fact that the author is Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Toronto, I expected to see more entries with a Canadian flavor. McGill University's neurosurgery pioneer, Wilder Penfield, receives half of one sentence. Walt Whitman's disciple, Richard Maurice Bucke, who performed pathbreaking work at the London (Ontario) Insane Asylum, is not mentioned at all, although a biography about him is listed in the bibliography. Nor does Shorter mention Joseph Workman, whom a recent biography unashamedly calls "The Father of Canadian Psychiatry," while he does offer an essay on Benjamin Rush, "The Father of American Psychiatry."
Assessment: I did not find an entry, or at least a subentry, for "phrenology," now laughably quaint, that early attempt at biological psychiatry that once received serious attention. He has an extensive subentry for wartime "Shell Shock" under the entry "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," but never mentions the English psychiatrist William Rivers and his work during World War I at Craiglockhart Hospital where he treated the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Still, these are merely omissions, not flaws, and the overall quality and readability of this valuable book more than compensates. I highly recommend it for all college, university, and public libraries.