My interest in nineteenth-century melancholia and in the history of psychological medicine more broadly began while studying for an MA in Intellectual History at the University of Sussex. A dissertation submitted as part of this degree, ‘Sick Brains, Troubled Minds: Wilhelm Griesinger, Depression, and the Virtue of Psychiatry’, formed the starting point for my current project. A second dissertation, submitted for the MA in the History of Medicine at UCL, explored the relationship between suicidality and melancholia in late-Victorian Medicine. My research seeks to understand how psychiatric knowledge about people is created, negotiated, and reified. As an historian of the emotions I am also concerned with how emotions have been historically constituted by the language available for their expression, as well as by the medico-scientific concepts used to explain their existence.
The Creation of ‘Disordered Emotion’: Melancholia as Biomedical Disease, c. 1840-1900
My thesis traces the re-conceptualisation of melancholia as a biomedical mental disease in mid-to-late Victorian medicine, with a strong emphasis on the uptake of psycho-physiology and German neuropsychiatry in British medical psychology. Language appropriated from experimental physiology allowed physicians to speak about ‘disordered emotion’ as a physiological process which occurred when the brain was subjected to repeated ‘irritation’. When it came to diagnosing asylum patients, however, internal biological explanations of disease were of little use. Instead the focus was on externally observable ‘symptoms’, chiefly ‘depression of spirits’, ‘despondency’, and ‘suicidal propensities’. Diagnostic descriptions of melancholia travelled back and forth between the casebook and the textbook, producing a disease concept which on the surface displayed remarkable coherence, but which simultaneously spoke volumes about the arbitrary negotiations which take place when medicine seeks to neatly label and classify the complexities of human life. In sum, my thesis shows how melancholia was constituted as a modern diagnostic category in nineteenth-century British medicine. In doing so, it also tells the story of how ‘disordered emotion’ was made into a possible and plausible medical concept.
'Mood Disorders and the Brain: Depression, Melancholia, and the Historiography of Psychiatry, Medical History, 55:3, July 2011, pp. 393-399.