Scotland and SSHM, finally

Well, it’s been nearly a month and I’m finally getting around to writing up a report on the Society for Social History of Medicine conference I attended at the beginning of September.  I’ll start with Catherine Kudlick‘s excellent opening keynote address, “Disability History and History of Medicine: Rival Siblings or Conjoined Twins?” She started out by telling a couple of those dreadful Helen Keller Jokes  to illustrate the medical or “deficit” model of disability. Keller’s plight in these jokes is individual — she is isolated, confused, unable to fit in the world or deal with common everyday household appliances.  Disability in this case is something to be pitied and/or cured.  Kudlick used a two other jokes — one about blind pilots, to illustrate the social minority model — these poke fun at the able-bodied, the pilots are resourceful yet subversive.

She argued that while both the social history of medicine and disability history have moved the history of medicine from the “great doctors” paradigm, the two fields are for the moment quite separate and take a different approach to the history of persons with disabilities. Social historians of medicine, by and large, are drawn to figures like Keller because of her medical condition — they look at public health conditions, the state of medical care, the social environment of 19th-century Alabama, and other factors that contributed to Keller’s illness that led to her deaf/blind condition.  In doing so, they conflate disability and illness.  Disability scholars, such as Kim Nielsen, look at Keller’s political writings and her reflections on the physical embodiment of disability.  They place disability within the context of social inequalities, not biological inferiority.

Kudlick also commented on the fact that a number of social historians of medicine in SSHM have been attracted to the study of “madness” — this reflects the strong influence of Michel Foucault on the SSHM (more on this later).   In doing so, social historians of medicine have tended to romanticize mental illness, to claim it is not a disability.  Yet, while describing the social forces that contribute to definitions of who is or is not “mad,” they also overlook the lived experience of persons with mental illness (indeed, much of the focus is on medical discourse and institutions).  Kudlick recognized that even disability historians have not looked at mental illness that much.  As at the DH conference last summer, she argued that we need to look at the history of disability outside of institutions and clinics and see it as a different way of living in the world.

As to the other papers, I have to say that Foucault’s work is still highly influential across the pond and on the continent.  Since I gave up on Foucault’s ideas long ago, I was not aware that there is an entire field of governmentality studies based on his work.  In general, these talks are critical of government surveillance of public health, and the ways in which this surveillance is internalized through health education that persuades individuals to adopt personal hygiene habits, seek screening for cancer and other ailments, and so forth.  I agree with some of this, but I also think that some of these scholars take for granted the benefits that have accrued through their “oppressive” national health systems. Beatrix Hoffman‘s powerful paper, “The Politics of Health Coverage after 9/11 and Katrina”  was an excellent contrast — I bet the survivors of those calamites would have been happy to have a state that did more to show it gave a damn about their health and welfare.

I also really liked Benoit Majerus‘ paper, “Chemical Revolution From Below: Psychoactive Drugs and Patients in the 1950s and 1960s,” which advocated a stronger focus on the patients’ experiences of the “chemical revolution” in psychopharmacology. In general, the patients he studies did not see the new drugs as revolutionary, complained of side effects, and one even said he preferred ECT to the pills.  It would be great to be able to replicate this kind of study in the U.S., but given HIPPA, I doubt this wll be possible.

I spent a lot of time before/after the conference exploring various medical history sites with Cathy Kudlick and Patricia Barton from Strathclyde University.  Here are the pictures.  Perhaps I can make this into an online medical history tour, using Mappr!

1 thought on “Scotland and SSHM, finally

  1. Thanks for the report, Heather. As someone who *does* use Foucault (in a rather loose sense) in my work, I’d still have to agree with you that at least some Europeans have let criticism of their medical system eclipse criticism of the alternative. But I guess criticizing social Darwinian approaches to medicine is *our* job on this side of the pond.

    Nice pictures, too.

    I would’ve gone to the SSHM conference in 1999 (while I was still living in Germany) but I was about 36 weeks pregnant at the time … and unlike some folks, I don’t think traveling at that point is such a hot idea. 🙂

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