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.



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.

„Translating Health“: Cultures of Prevention and (Bio)Medicine in Europe after 1945, held from 23 to 25 May 2013 in Mainz

by Katharina Kreuder-Sonnen

I visited this conference to learn about processes of translation between different public health cultures. I was especially interested in encounters of Eastern and Western European biomedical concepts. The conference was organized by Antje Kampf, Jeannette Madarász-Lebenshagen (both Institute for the History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine, Mainz) and Donna Harsch (Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University). It took place from 23 to 25 May in Mainz.

The concept of translation has long moved beyond the textual and linguistic level to become a basic analytical category for the study of heterogeneous but interrelated cultural phenomena. The “translational turn” in the study of culture has been greatly influenced by post colonial theory. It stresses the complexity of cultural encounters trying to understand them as multiple layers of mutual translational work. Translation as transformation serves as a buzz phrase in this context. The conference organizers followed that road when asking to overcome concepts of a unidirectional dissemination of knowledge but to think of the history of prevention and (bio)medicine as the “integrated” product of travelling concepts.
In Mainz, this translational approach from the field of cultural studies met with notions of translation long established in the history of science and medicine: Speakers referred to Bruno Latour’s and Michel Callon’s Sociology of Translation as well as to Ludwik Fleck. Therefore, the conference was marked by a multitude of translational approaches and repeatedly brought up the question of what this term actually means for historians of science and medicine.

This problem was discussed intensively especially in a panel about “translational medicine” which addressed the well-known complex relationship between bench and bedside. The notion of translational medicine evolved only recently in medical research and posed the question if translation has turned into an actor’s category rather than being an analytical one. Discussants of the roundtable at the end of the conference suggested several specific concepts other than cultural translation that could nevertheless help analyze settings of encounter and mediation: social movement theory and its notion of framing were named as well as boundary objects and practices.

In her highly inspiring keynote Ilana Löwy underlined that the devil of translational analysis is in the details: Only closely scrutinized cases can shed light on local differences in medical practices which then make translational work necessary.
Unfortunately, almost all talks concerning Central and Eastern Europe were cancelled, except for one about clinical drug trials in the Soviet Union. East and West Germany served as the most commonly used example for cultural encounters, US-American and European entanglements were discussed as well. Next to translations between socio-cultural systems and the aforementioned bench-to-bedside relationships processes of mediation among health experts were another topic of the conference. Moreover, an entire panel was devoted to translation and gender aspects. The empirical case studies presented stemmed from a wide range of topics that reached from health education and cancer research to artificial insemination in cattle breeding. Three days of stimulating discussion gave multiple insights into the promises and pitfalls of the translational approach in these various fields.

A complete conference report will soon be published on
The conference programme can be found here