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Time to Cure: Psychiatry, Psychology, and Speed in Modern France, c.1880s-1930s

  • Author(s): Woolner, Maia Isabelle
  • Advisor(s): Murat, Laure
  • Porter, Theodore M
  • et al.
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“Time to Cure” reveals that from the late nineteenth century and well into the first decades of the twentieth, different notions of time and various time-keeping tools were instruments of change in French psychiatric theory and practice. During this period French alienists and mind scientists became preoccupied not only with how their patients and experimental subjects related to the increasingly widespread presence of clocks and watches and to the temporal constructs and pressures of modern life, but also with how they might deploy time-keeping tools themselves to serve the still elusive goal of curability. Using a wide variety of sources from course books and clinical reports to cinematography and photography, each chapter of this dissertation explores a different facet of how French mental health practitioners used time to re-envision psychiatric classification, diagnosis, treatment duration, the spatial organization of psychiatric hospitals, and lastly, the observation of their patients’ inner mental lives.

By looking at different aspects of mental health practice and research, including charting techniques, reaction time measurements, and the interpretation of “temporal delusions,” “Time to Cure” queries how the rise and proliferation of precision time-keeping instruments, the seductive power of speed, and new ideas about the temporal trajectory of mental illness were intertwined in France from the 1880s to the 1930s. It asks: how did mental health practitioners and researchers fashion time into a device, tool, measure, and metaphor with the aim of chipping away at the thorny problem of psychiatric curability? This study equally examines how the ability to accelerate processes in science and technology has influenced the expectations and experiences of mental illness and treatment.

Meditating on how what “counts” as cured is highly dependent on context, this study demonstrates that it is through the framework of temporality that the criteria for, and limitations of, curability become visible in starkest relief. Finally, by placing the relationship between time and psychiatric cure center stage, this history connects to contemporary concerns about the pressures of productivity and profit for medicine more broadly.

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This item is under embargo until June 1, 2022.