Biography has often been dismissed within academic circles, regarded as an unsophisticated approach to history. However, a recent one-day symposium at the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine begged to differ, and highlighted the importance of the topic in a field attempting to understand and explore the human mind. Indeed, biography can help us investigate the methods of these human sciences themselves, as Professor Daniel Todes indicated in a paper on the well-known experiments of Ivan Pavlov. For Todes, we cannot fully appreciate Pavlov’s methods in insolation from the man himself for, as Pavlov declared: “That which I see in dogs I immediately transfer to myself.”
More questions were raised by the day than answered. According to Dr Mathew Thomson, this is not an issue, but rather an important element of the biographical approach. Thomson suggested that biography is a way to challenge the very idea of a firm answer, and indicate the complexities of any historical topic. By way of example, he explored the volume of biographical essays on psychoanalyst David Eder, published after Eder’s death by a variety of contributors. What strikes Thomson is the sheer lack of biographical coherence in these essays, for, naturally, Eder meant very different things to different people. Moreover, for many of these contributors, psychoanalysis was not simply a method used by the analyst. Instead, it became regarded as something expressed in the personality and presence of the analyst himself, making biography vital to understanding its very nature.
One problem with biography, Dr Peter Hegarty suggested, is the struggle a writer has with determining what is appropriate: how should we write about other people’s lives? Such a question is many-sided, for it affects both the historian and his or her subject. Two papers approached this directly, exploring the use of biographical information in case histories, in the late nineteenth-century asylum in England and two early twentieth-century institutions for juvenile delinquency in Romania. Both indicated the way certain aspects of an individual’s history might be especially highlighted by researchers (in both history and psychiatry) in order to draw a particular conclusion. Yet, as this fascinating day constantly impressed on all who attended, many different conclusions might indeed be possible, and a psychiatric record only gives us one tiny facet of the very varied lives and experiences of individuals.
Visit the conference website, where it is hoped that abstracts of papers will soon be available.
Pavlov’s dogs with their keepers at the Physiology Department, Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, St Petersburg, 1904
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images