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Inventing the feeble mind: a history of mental retardation in the United States

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
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  • Book Reviews
  • Biology
  • History
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  • Medicine
  • Pharmacology


Book Reviews case books and diaries and court records have been, or are being, done to a frazzle. In 1979 we had Scull's Museums ofmadness, its dust- jacket a garish interior of St Luke's Hospital, its title in bold red capitals. In 1994 we have The most solitary of afflictions, its title set in a soft blue box, against a fetching background of van Gogh's Hospital at Arles. This sense of stalemate is not really the fault of Andrew Scull. He has not written a lesser book, nor even a new book, but rather a re- working (with additions) of the original, radical text. The opening chapter still starts with quotes from Marx and Foucault, and "The social control of the mad" is still the first sub- heading. There is no hint here that maybe the asylum had some softer tones. However, he acknowledges that he has now had the chance to "explore sources" with which he previously had "only the most glancing acquaintance", and a much more detailed picture emerges of the world of Victorian responses to mental illness. His summary of the pre-asylum discourse is excellent, and the later additions, which include "The critics of asylumdom", "Degeneration and decay" and "Extra- institutional practice", are better written and embrace much of modem scholarship. His final comment, though, is something of a lament. He suggests that "Modem psychopharmacology", as the unambiguous monopoly of the medically trained psychiatrist, is "thereby fumishing a decisive means of recementing the profession's jurisdictional claims to the value-free realm of medical science". In one sentence his tone, language, and version of events is seen at a glance. Perhaps most troubling is the thought that this work might be an epitaph. The milling crowds of the "museum" have been historically dissected, forgiven their sins, and put out to their solitary-communal lives. The historians and sociologists are departing, and a few dusty archivists and aging psychiatrists are left to carry on the work of uncontroversial recording. Boarded out in his seas

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