Traumatic Pasts is a collection of papers originally presented
at a conference on the history of medicine and psychological trauma
held at the University of Manchester, England, in 1996. The papers
are all concerned with trauma, in one form or another, in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - the period in
which "trauma" ceased to mean solely "physical
shock" and took on its contemporary psychological implications.
The papers examine the ways in which notions of trauma developed
in debates concerning Victorian railway crashes, insurance for
work-related accidents, turn-of-the-century psychiatric theory,
and the neuropsychiatric casualties of the First World War. Together
they provide a valuable resource for understanding the ways in
which contemporary concepts of trauma -- concepts that we now
use constantly in seeking to understand individual and social
behavior -- have been historically shaped.
As might be expected, the collection is not an easy-read. The
papers are scholarly and heavy-going. They will probably be of
more interest to the professional historian than the casual reader.
This being understood, some of the papers in the collection are
very good indeed.
A nice feature of the collection is that papers concerned with
similar topics are grouped together. Often several scholars tackle
the same or closely related issues, and when their papers are
read together a much richer understanding of the debates is gained
than would be achieved by reading the papers in isolation. Thus
Ralph Harrington and Eric Caplan both examine the ways in which
notions of trauma were shaped by the symptoms of late nineteenth
century railway crash victims, and by the mechanisms then in place
for gaining compensation for such injuries. Harrington looks at
railway crashes in Victorian Britain, Eric Caplan concentrates
on America in the same period. Both show how laws making railway
companies responsible for the welfare of passengers created a
niche for "railway spine"; a diagnosis that enabled
crash victims to gain compensation from railway companies in the
absence of visible somatic injury.
Similarly, Peter Leese, Bruna Bianchi, Marc Roudebush and Caroline
Cox all write about the conceptualisation and treatment of war-related
neuroses in the First World War. Their papers examine the ways
in which neuropsychiatric casualties were dealt with in Britain,
Italy, France, and the United States. Together these papers make
it very clear that how different cultural and political backgrounds
resulted in soldiers with similar symptoms being seen, and thus
treated, very differently.
Also noteworthy is a horribly gruesome paper by Lisa Cardyn, which
makes a strong case for the claim that in the early twentieth
century the category of female sexual trauma did not yet exist.
It seems common sense to us that women who have been sexually
abused or raped might be traumatized by their experiences. Indeed,
most people now-a-days would assume that the psychic damage caused
by a rape might well be worse than the physical damage. In the
1910s and 1920s, however, medics appear to have seen and stitched-up
the most horrendous female-genital injuries, and not to have given
a thought to the psychological damage that might be caused by
the women's experiences. Indeed, when these doctors concerned
themselves with psychological problems at all, they seem to have
mainly worried about the effects of rape accusations on men.
In addition to the papers already discussed in this review, the
collection also includes papers by Wolfgang Schaffner, Greg Eghigian,
Mark Micale and Paul Lerner. These papers deal with work, accidents
and trauma in the early welfare state, and the theories of Jean-Martin
Charcot and Hermann Oppenheim. To sum up, Traumatic Pasts
is a rich and scholarly collection of papers that will be of interest
mainly to those with a professional interest in the history of
Rachel Cooper is a
lecturer in philosophy in the Department of Interdisciplinary
Human Studies, Bradford University, U.K.
© 2001 Rachel Cooper