The Future of Medical History conference, organised by the soon-to-be closing Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL took place last week. The history of psychiatry and psychology was certainly high on the agenda, with papers on the topic ranging from music therapy in eighteenth century medicine, through the role of psychical research in nineteenth century scientific psychology, to a new take on the link (or, as was argued, the lack of one) between melancholia and clinical depression: if nineteenth century diagnoses of melancholia were specific to the period, our theories of clinical depression must also be reinterpreted.
These contributions, including a paper on post-war psychiatry in the United States by Professor Andrew Scull, a central figure in twentieth and twenty-first century history of psychiatry, indicate that psychiatric history certainly has a promising future. Indeed, one persuasive session on the importance of collaboration in medical history, reminded us of the need for historians to work together – and with those from other disciplines, including clinicians – to improve our understanding of the field. In the final paper of the day, Professor Sander Gilman reminded us that the role of the historian is never to stop asking questions, of him or herself as well as sources. Nonetheless, as post-paper discussion highlighted, such attempts do not have to be destructive. The future of medical history, it was suggested, lies in construction, an irony that will not be lost on those at the Centre, the announced closure of which came as a shock to medical history in April.
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