Welcome to the Birkbeck Trauma Project blog.
We are interested in understanding how trauma and the medical conditions associated with it have been constructed and reconstructed over the modern period. We explore how ‘traumatic events’ are given cultural meaning. Particular interests include responses to abuse within medical institutions and during armed conflicts, as well as in the aftermath of violent events such as rape, assault, and disasters.
As a concept, trauma first began to attract interest in the 1860s. Passengers who had been involved in train accidents complained of physical injuries such as severe pain, paralysis and muscular spasms, even though there were no observable lesions that might explain their symptoms. Ferocious debates around the validity of these claims erupted in the courts. Eventually, the condition was given a name – ‘railway spine’ –which bolstered the medical case for prosecuting railways companies and led to improved safety.
At this point in history, biological explanations reigned supreme in medicine and the symptoms of railway spine were thought to be caused by undetectable lesions in the brain or nervous system following a physical reaction to a severe fright. It was around the turn of the century that well-known neurologists such as Jean-Martin Charcot, Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud applied a more psychological interpretation to the physical manifestations of trauma. As Ruth Leys has explained, trauma was increasingly understood as a ‘wounding of the mind brought about by sudden, unexpected, emotional shock’ (p. 4). Whilst Charcot sought to treat trauma with hypnosis, his former protégé Freud drew on psychoanalysis in an attempt to alleviate physiological symptoms by allowing the traumatic memory to rise into consciousness.
For many, trauma was a consequence of the rapid industrial and technological growth of the modern period. These commentators emphasized the need to alleviate the negative effects of modernity through diet, exercise, and relaxation, for example.
Over the twentieth century, concepts of what constitutes a traumatic experience expanded from shell-shock in the First World War to combat neurosis in the Second. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was increasingly applied to veterans of wars and survivors of atrocities such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima, as well as to victims of rape and other forms of abuse.
As the anthropologist Allan Young has argued, PTSD ‘is not timeless, nor does it possess an intrinsic unity’. This is not to say that the suffering caused by traumatic events is not real. It is. But the way trauma is understood and employed as a diagnostic category has changed over time according to a range of interests, practices and technologies.
At the Birkbeck Trauma Project we want to stimulate conversations and debates around how the historical understanding of trauma can deeper our insights into what it means today.
Whatever your background and discipline, do share with us your thinking and research interests on this important topic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org with your contributions of 400-600 words.
Joanna Bourke and Louise Hide
Joanna Bourke, ‘Sexual Violence, Bodily Pain, and Trauma: A History’, Theory, Culture & Society, 29 (2012), 25–51.
Peter Leese and Jason Crouthamel (eds), Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After (2016).
Ruth Leys, Trauma. A Genealogy (2000).
Tracey Loughran, ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 67 (2012), 94–119.
Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner, Traumatic Pasts. History, Psychiatry and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930 (2001).
Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions. Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (1995).