Madness: A Brief History

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Looking back on his confinement to Bethlem, Restoration playwright Nathaniel Lee declared: "They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me." As Roy Porter shows in Madness: A Brief History, thinking about who qualifies as insane, what causes mental illness, and how such illness should be treated has varied wildly throughout recorded history, sometimes veering dangerously close to the arbitrariness Lee describes and often encompassing cures considerably worse than the illness itself.
Drawing upon eyewitness accounts of doctors, writers, artists, and the mad themselves, Roy Porter tells the story of our changing notions of insanity and of the treatments for mental illness that have been employed from antiquity to the present day. Beginning with 5,000-year-old skulls with tiny holes bored in them (to allow demons to escape), through conceptions of madness as an acute phase in the trial of souls, as an imbalance of "the humors," as the "divine fury" of creative genius, or as the malfunctioning of brain chemistry, Porter shows the many ways madness has been perceived and misperceived in every historical period. He takes us on a fascinating round of treatments, ranging from exorcism and therapeutic terror—including immersion in a tub of eels—to the first asylums, shock therapy, the birth of psychoanalysis, and the current use of psychotropic drugs.
Throughout, Madness: A Brief History offers a balanced view, showing both the humane attempts to help the insane as well as the ridiculous and often cruel misunderstanding that have bedeviled our efforts to heal the mind of its myriad afflictions.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A brief and fascinating history of insanity."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"In just over 200 pages Porter manages to cram in everything from 7,000-year-old skulls with holes bored into them to release demons to the rise of psychopharmacology. In between we get Greco-Roman rationalism, the bloody and persistent belief that mental illness was caused by a compromised faith in God (approximately 200,000 witches killed), the rebirth of the humors (blood, choler, melancholy, and—my favorite—phlegm), institutionalization, Freudian analysis, de-institutionalization, the death of Freudian analysis (to your computers, Cambridge analysts!), and the glorification of insanity under Michel Foucault. It's a rich history, and because of Porter's delightful habit of bringing in colorful figures to fill out the story, his book seems bright even when walking the dingy halls of Bedlam."—Sunday Boston Globe

"The sudden and unexpected death of Roy Porter in March robbed the English-speaking world of one of its most prolific, colorful and talented social historians.... Madness...displays several of his virtues: his wide reading, his prodigious memory, his extraordinary capacity for synthesis, his eye for an anecdote, and the sheer fun he took in telling a story."—Nature

"A magisterial synthesis of 1,000 years of mental illness and psychiatric remedies. The book wears its learning so lightly that in an afternoon's perusal, the average reader has a genuinely informed account of what all the shouting has been about."—Toronto Globe and Mail

"This small book is rich in detail yet never loses sight of the broader ebb and flow in society's beliefs about what constitutes mental illness."—Houston Chronicle

Kirkus Reviews
Highly acclaimed medical historian Porter traces changes in attitude toward madness all the way from prehistoric beliefs in demonic possession to the contention of some modern theorists that mental illness simply does not exist.... A small book that raises big questions about the profession of psychiatry and the notion of scientific progress.
From The Critics
Combines the appeal of history as narrative with the intellectualstimulation derived from cogent analysis. ...[Madness] will engage both general readers and psychiatry students with its sparkling prose.
Library Journal
No branch of medicine faces as much popular skepticism as psychiatry. In this readable yet rigorous little book with a global slant, Porter (social history of medicine, University Coll., London; The Greatest Benefit to Mankind) addresses that controversy by recounting the history of mental illness from antiquity to modern times. A wealth of facts and literary references illuminate how people went from believing that supernatural forces cause mental illness to their reliance on more rational and naturalistic explanations, culminating in today's combination of the medical and psychosocial models. Porter also discusses topical issues, including the relationship between lunacy and creativity; the drive to institutionalize, which peaked in the mid-20th century; the rise and demise of psychoanalysis; and the development of the antipsychiatry movement. This book combines the appeal of history as narrative with the intellectual stimulation derived from cogent analysis. Less comprehensive than Edward Shorter's A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac but more academic than Alex Beam's Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital, it will engage both general readers and psychiatry students with its sparkling prose and a well-annotated bibliography. Highly recommended. Antoinette Brinkman, M.L.S., Evansville, IN Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A generously illustrated and pocket-sized distillation of the ways madness has been perceived and treated, from ancient times to the present. Highly acclaimed medical historian Porter (Social History of Medicine/Univ. College London; The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, 1998, etc.) traces changes in attitude toward madness all the way from prehistoric beliefs in demonic possession to the contention of some modern theorists that mental illness simply does not exist. He demonstrates how beliefs in supernatural causes were challenged by Greek medicine, which developed an explanation based on the four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile), and how that approach was subsequently adopted by Western medicine. With generous use of quotations, he illustrates how in the 17th century new organic theories of insanity linking mind and body began to emerge, leading to the hope that those with mental disorders could be helped through retraining of their minds. Porter examines the drive toward institutionalization, how practical psychiatry developed from the experience of asylum managers, and how disappointment with the results of benign "moral therapy" led to the growing belief that madness was probably hereditary and incurable, which in turn led to compulsory confinement, sedation, and even sterilization. He chronicles the rise and decline of psychoanalysis, both Freudian and non-Freudian, the enormous impact of psychopharmacology, and the proliferation of psychotherapies designed to treat the astonishing number of conditions labeled as mental disorders in the American Psychiatric Association's current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. For those whoseappetite will have been whetted by this literate little introduction, Porter appends a well-annotated selection of readings on aspects of his subject just touched on here. A small book that raises big questions about the profession of psychiatry and the notion of scientific progress. (28 b&w illustrations, many of them etchings and engravings from the 16th to 19th centuries)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192802675
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/8/2003
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 397,393
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 4.70 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Roy Porter is Professor of the Social History of Medicine at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. He is the author of over 80 books, including Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World and A Social History of Madness.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Madness, Gods, and Demons
3. The Rationality of Madness
4. Fools and Folly
5. Locking up the Mad
6. The Rise of Psychiatry
7. The Mad
8. The Century of Psychoanalysis
9. Conclusion: Modern Times, Ancient Problems?

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