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by Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner (editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Rachel Cooper on Jan 24th 2002

Traumatic PastsTraumatic 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 trauma.

© 2001 Rachel Cooper

Rachel Cooper is a lecturer in philosophy in the Department of Interdisciplinary Human Studies, Bradford University, U.K.