The Retrospectoscope: Pinel, On Insanity

I’m hoping The Retrospectoscope will be a series, if readers are interested. Here I hope to pull little bits out of a whole lot of historical medical and health texts. Feel free to discuss as you like.

The bias will be toward Western books from the 17th to 19th century, as that’s what’s in my collection. If you have other scans that you’d like to drop into the suggestion box, please drop me an email: lauredhel at

Today’s snippet is from Philippe Pinel’s A Treatise On Insanity. 1806. Pinel, who was a physician at Bicêtre Hospital in France, is widely considered the “father of modern psychiatry”.

Excerpt from Pinel

Description: A scan of part of page 251 of On Insanity. It reads:



108. THE blood of maniacs is sometimes so lavishly spilled, and with so little discernment, as to render it doubtful whether the patient or his physician has the best claim to the appellation of a madman. This reflection naturally suggests itself upon seeing many a victim of medical presumption, reduced by the depleteing system of treatment to a state of extreme debility or absolute ideotism.

By 8 November, 2009.    history, retrospectoscope   


  1. C’est magnifique!

    In English: how appropriate to start with Pinel.

    I think the oldest medical book I have in my house is probably Cyril Burt’s The backward child, written and published in the 1930s.

    Blood and instutionalisation continue to be big issues.
    .-= Adelaide Dupont´s last blog ..Running sheet for Key Concepts and Development: prelim and first draft, with pics and sounds! =-.

  2. Ha ha ha! Yes, please do make this a series.

    You might also be interested in checking out Michelle Dawson’s “Verbatim” series, where she reproduces passages from contemporary and historical autism experts that show surprising things about their understanding of and opinion on various autism-related issues.

    Sometimes the surprising thing will be positive, like a contemporary autism expert showing a more nuanced, not strictly deficit-based understanding of what autism is, or sometimes it will be horrible, like a description of horribly abusive practices countenanced as “therapy.”

  3. Please make this a regular thing!

    I read the block of text before reading the headline, so when the speaker mentioned spilling blood, my first thought was of staff physically abusing patients.

  4. I definitely hope this turns into a series. If you don’t mind my suggesting it, I think it would also be very interesting to juxtapose these types of texts with 1960s antipsychiatry type texts that romanticize insanity, which can be just as damaging.

  5. conductress: I’ll be mostly limited to the books in my possession, but I’m willing to take submissions if you’ve something you’d like to show.

  6. Please do make it a series! Very interesting, if fairly horrifying o.o