Conference Report: Psychiatry in Europe after WWII

Over 30-31 October, Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence: Asia and Europe in a Global Context played host to conference that brought together historians and clinical practitioners from across the world to discuss psychiatry in the post-WWII context.  Held at the Karl Jaspers Centre, Psychiatry in Europe after World War II (Psychiatrie in Europa nach dem Zweiten Weltkreig) grappled with a simple but important question: was WWII a turning point for the development of psychiatry?  If so, what about the war shifted European psychiatry into a new direction? What were the primary changes brought about and were these changes reflected across Europe?

The meeting was introduced by Maike Rotzoll, herself a psychiatrist and historian, who presciently highlighted some further questions that were addressed by most of the presenters.  How and how much did the East-West conflict affect psychiatric development?  What role did supranational entities like the WHO play in shaping mental healthcare?  What hallmarks, if any, mark “postwar psychiatry?”  She placed much stress on the need for historians to consider issues of continuity and discontinuity when assessing mental healthcare after 1945.


Nearly twenty countries were touched upon by participants, with CEE-related papers given on the GDR (Gerrit Hohendorf, Deitmar Schulze, Ekkehardt Kumbier, Christof Beyer), Estonia (Ken Kalling and Erki Tammiksaar), Czechoslovakia (Michal Simunek and Milan Novak), Poland (Darius Myszka), Yugoslavia (Mat Savelli), and Russia (Frank Gruner).  The global nature of the conference (extending beyond Europe to include presentations by scholars working on Japan (Akihito Suzuki), the United States (Marion Schmidt), and Israel (Rakefet Zalashik)) highlighted the need to approach psychiatric history transnationally.  For example, the presentation on Yugoslavia linked up closely to Duncan Double’s work on the UK-based Maxwell Jones and John Foot’s research on Italy’s Franco Basaglia.  Postwar Japanese psychiatry, on the other hand, cannot be understood separately from American and German developments.

Recurring topics across papers included the importance of studying the prewar (and in some cases, postwar) eugenics movement, the brutal mistreatment of the mentally ill in Nazi Germany and occupied territories, and psychiatry’s desire to establish itself as a material science in the postwar period.


Moving forward, the papers made clear the central importance of the social psychiatry movement to postwar developments in mental healthcare, despite its relatively low historiographical profile.  It also became apparent that far more work must be done on the transmission and reception of ideas linked to critical psychiatry and anti-psychiatry; these movements were received (and unfolded) very differently depending on context.

The conference concluded with a guided tour of Heidelberg’s famous Prinzhorn collection – paintings, sculptures, and other art created by individuals diagnosed with mental illness – which was originally given to the university by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn.  Many thanks to the chief organizers (Maike Rotzoll and Frank Gruner) for a wonderful meeting.

(Images take from the Prinzhorn Collection: www.



Pre-modern Medicine in Bohemia – seminar at the Wellcome Library

The next seminar in the 2015–16 History of Pre-Modern Medicine Seminar Series takes place on Tuesday 24th November.

Speaker: Professor Michael Stolberg

Humanist self-fashioning and ordinary medical practice. The Bohemian physician Georg Handsch (1529–c. 1578) and his notebooks

L0025259 A medical practitioner examining urine brought by his patien Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A medical practitioner examining urine brought by his patients. Painted relief after Giotto. Oil Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0


The professional identity of learned physicians underwent some major changes in the 16th century. The rise of humanism reshaped the world of the ‘res publica literaria’ in which learned physicians prominently participated. At the same time, growing numbers of physicians settled in large and small towns all over Central and Western Europe and sought to make a living as medical practitioners. Drawing on the voluminous notebooks of a little known and rather unsuccessful Bohemian physician by the name of Georg Handsch, and some other physicians’ letters and practice journals, this paper will take a look at the ways in which fairly ‘ordinary’ physicians coped with this tension: how they self-fashioned themselves as humanist intellectuals, but also engaged with the medical lay-world and interacted with (and learnt from) the townsfolk in an effort to secure a place in urban society and to hold their own in the medical marketplace.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

Doors open at 6pm, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th century medicine).

CFP: After the End of Disease

London, May 26-27, 2016

Public and academic discussions on the end of diseases are abundant in the midst of recent epidemic crises. Faltering vaccination rates have seen old diseases, like measles and whooping cough resurface to epidemic proportions in the Global North. Several global epidemic crises, such as the swine flu and ebola, have prompted international organizations, local governments, pharmaceutical companies, research institutions and individuals to respond in manifold ways with the aim of controlling and eventually ending epidemic diseases. Ending diseases for good have been the goal of several eradication campaigns over the 20th century and are the focus of global projects such as the polio eradication initiative, spearheaded by the a public-private partnership including the WHO, the CDC, UNICEF, the Rotary and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In his now classic article ‘What is an epidemic?’, Charles Rosenberg pointed out that epidemics as social phenomena work with a particular dramaturgic form of increasing tension, crisis and eventual closure. Scholarly analysis, historical or contemporary, has tended to follow this narrative, focusing on prevention, outbreaks, epidemic crises, upheaval, and the end of disease. What happens after the end is more often than not left to epilogues, or addressed only in relation to a new, emerging disease on the cusp of crisis. Yet, diseases are often imprinted on the bodies of survivors, societies and cultures. Epidemics may change economic structures, social interaction, shape practices of international intervention and attitudes towards healthcare. In some cases, the proclaimed end of a disease leaves individuals or whole societies and states without resources previously guaranteed by the perceived epidemic threat. In others, the action of looking back after the end creates space for making moral judgements on individuals, societies, governments and international organizations.

This conference brings together historians of medicine and global public health, anthropologists and sociologists with policy makers to think past the conventional narrative curve of epidemics and disease in general. Proposals that address one or several of the following questions are particularly welcome:

  • How do states, societies and international organizations prepare for the end of a disease? Do they prepare at all?
  • What happens to the disease itself after the end?
  • What are the lasting consequences of epidemic diseases that linger on after the end?
  • What happens when a disease makes a comeback?
  • Who and when decides if a disease is over? Where and for whom do diseases end and who is excluded/forgotten?
  • How does the action of determining the “end” of an epidemic (e.g. ebola, polio, etc.) affect those involved: those who fear, those who prepare, those who cure, those who survive?
  • What happens if the end of a disease fails to arrive?

Deadline to submit abstracts up to 300 words is December 1, 2015.

Please send abstracts and any queries to

Contact details:

Dora Vargha

Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of History, Classics and Archeology
Birkbeck, University of London

Conference Report: The History of Health and Disease in Central and Eastern Europe since 1945

Over the course of two days (14-15 October), the Institute of National Memory and the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences sponsored a conference entitled “The History of Health and Disease in Central and Eastern Europe since 1945.” Although a substantial portion of participants hailed from various research centres and history departments across Poland, a sizeable contingent of foreign scholars were also present (including the CEEHM network’s own Sarah Marks, Agata Ignaciuk, Dora Vargha, and Mat Savelli). Held at the “History Stop” in Central Warsaw, participants discussed and debated the key trends (and interpretation of these trends) that marked health and healthcare across the former Marxist-Leninist world.

After some introductory remarks from one of the chief organizers, Evelina Szpak, the conference began with what proved to be a highly controversial and emotionally charged panel on birth control, abortion, and childcare. With the exception of Donald Filtzer’s work on Soviet infant mortality, the panel was largely concerned with contraception and abortion practices in post-WWII Poland. Agata Ignaciuk, Sylwia Kuzma-Markowska, and Katarzyna Jarkiewicz gave papers from differing perspectives, with each prompting substantial debate from the audience. Some audience members had trouble restraining their emotions, with one individual loudly cursing the “black devil of gender” for apparently misguiding research in the subject. The participants all did remarkably well under difficult circumstances to not respond to provocation and address questions seriously. Subsequent panels, while still producing debate, discussion, and direct criticism, were conducted in a calmer climate.

The conference took a very broad approach to health, with presentations on subjects ranging from specific diseases (cancer and polio were both discussed in multiple papers) to the broader determinants of health, including the economy and environment (air pollution, degradation of waterways, etc.). A number of other papers concentrated on the structure and organization of healthcare services, with special attention to issues of professional training and autonomy which covered Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.

Despite concentrating on central and eastern Europe, many of the presenters incorporated global and transnational elements into their work. Anna Geltzer, for instance, discussed differences between American and Soviet ways of forming knowledge about anti-cancer drugs. Papers by Pavel Jaworski and Sylwia Szyc, meanwhile, made respective connections to Swedish aid agencies and orphans from North Korea.

The conference did a fine job illustrating the diversity of experience within the formerly Marxist-Leninist world. The papers demonstrated that the similarities in historical experience were, by and large, minimal and fairly superficial. It would be a stretch to describe “Communist health care” in any meaningful, transnational way. Instead, the work of the presenters underscored the need for historians to continue delving deeper into the divergences between East European countries and their connections with countries beyond the region.

The organizers should be thanked for putting on such a narrowly focused event as it allowed for discussions to dig deeper into key questions about medicine and health in this period. At typical meetings of medical historians, historians of central and east European medicine are often shoehorned into somewhat ill-fitting panels or left having to use most of their presentation explaining the context of the Communist world. While an understandable necessity, this conference nonetheless represented a welcome break from that experience. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the conference was simultaneously translated (quite adeptly) in Polish and English which allowed for participants (including the public) to engage in an equal level of speaking comfort.