A pioneer in the history of psychiatry: Joost Vijselaar retired

This spring, Joost Vijselaar retires from the chair of professor of the history of psychiatry at Utrecht University. To honour Joost, his great achievements in the field, and his justified appeal that we do not let go of Dutch as an academic language, we publish this tribute both in Dutch and in English.

Gemma Blok and Timo Bolt

On April 28, a scientific pioneer retired, one to whom medical history in the Netherlands owes a lot: the Utrecht professor of history of psychiatry Joost Vijselaar. He spent more than forty years mapping, analysing, and sensitively describing the historical development of mental health care in the Netherlands. He belongs to an international generation of scientists who over the past decades did ground-breaking work in the history of psychiatry, including the British historian Roy Porter and the American historian Andrew Scull. In 1990, Joost Vijselaar and his close colleague Leonie de Goei organized the first international European congress on the history of psychiatry in Den Bosch, which was attended by large numbers of these pioneers.

Joost Vijselaar

Joost discovered the history of psychiatry around 1980, during his studies at the Reinwardt Academy. He became involved in the management of the historical collection of the provincial psychiatric hospital Santpoort, near Bloemendaal. He then went on to work at the National Centre for Mental Health (NCgV) in Utrecht – forerunner of the current Trimbos Institute – as project leader of the Working Group on Historical Property of Psychiatric Hospitals. Among other things, this work resulted in a beautiful exhibition with objects, photographs and paintings from and about the history of psychiatry: Voor gek gehouden (‘Fooled’), held in Gouda and Haarlem in 1982. The opening of the exhibition in Haarlem was a turbulent affair: activists protested the solitary confinement of psychiatric patients by locking up some of the attendees.

The ‘discovery’ of the history of psychiatry, as this anecdote illustrates, took place in a tumultuous period. These were the years of anti-psychiatry and the Gekkenbeweging (‘Mad Pride movement’). Critics dubbed psychiatric institutions ‘the Gulag archipelago of the West’: nasty places where deviant and troublesome individuals were hidden away, knocked out with tranquilizers, and forced into passivity with horror methods such as electroshocks. In the words of the Dutch anti-psychiatrist Jan Foudraine, the mentally ill were the ‘loudspeakers from which the ills of our time’ resounded.

However, this kind of criticism also sparked interest in the history of psychiatry. For example, the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, most notably his famous Histoire de la folie (1961), was in many countries a catalyst for a flourishing attention for the psychiatric past, as historians reflected at the Den Bosch conference in 1990. But those present at the conference also distanced themselves from Foucault’s anti-psychiatric view of history, which was characterized as “unconvincing” and “romantic.” The professional historians of psychiatry did not want to denounce or glorify the modern care for the mentally ill, but instead set out to thoroughly investigate and understand it.

In his first book, Krankzinnigen gesticht ,1880-1910 (1982) (‘The insane asylum’), Joost took a closer look at the much-maligned psychiatric hospital. Illustrated with beautiful visual material, including a photo collection that he found in the dusty attic of the Willem Arntsz Hoeve, he described the Dutch asylum population and daily life in the institutions at the turn of the century. The ambitions that these psychiatric hospitals were founded with were grand: they would heal the ‘mentally ill’ in a soothing environment away from the stress of city, work and family. The aim was an ‘affable, humane treatment’ of the patient, who had to regain the capacity for self-control. But the ideals clashed with reality: the asylums became overcrowded with chronic patients and took on the character of nursing homes. A regime arose that curtailed difficult behavior – shouting, destructiveness, raggedness, aggression and suicide – as much as possible.

However, a psychiatric admission was certainly not always a ‘one-way trip’, nor was the asylum a place where society simply put unwanted individuals away. In his book Het gesticht. Enkele reis of retour (2010) (‘The Asylum. One way or return’), Joost showed – based on research in patient files from the period 1890-1950 – that a psychiatric admission was mainly an ultimum refugium for families. They had often taken care of a sick family member for years, until the precarious balance between carrying capacity and burden was disturbed and people could no longer cope. In addition, practitioners made great efforts to resocialize patients. Thus, the scientific historiography of psychiatry provided a nuance to the Foucauldian image of the asylum as a modern, bourgeois solution to irrationality, unproductivity and maladjustment.

Daily life and treatment practices in the asylum are indeed an important thread in Vijselaar’s work, but he published about much more: for example, about the role of electricity in the history of psychiatry, the history of community psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, the history of castration in the Netherlands, and the life and work of the 19th century psychiatrist Schroeder van der Kolk. In addition to his work for the NCvG, where he produced a series of memorial books on psychiatric hospitals, he studied history in Utrecht and eventually obtained his PhD there with distinction in 1999 with a thesis on animal magnetism and mesmerism in the Netherlands.

A few years later, in 2004, Joost became professor by special appointment of the history of psychiatry at Utrecht University (UU). His chair was (partly) made possible by the Stichting Leerstoel geschiedenis van de psychiatrie (‘Foundation for a chair in the history of psychiatry’), which was financially supported by the mental health institutions in the Netherlands. This construction suited Joost well, because he always strived to work closely together with stakeholders in his field of research. As he was very successful in this – partly due to the excellent (and again pioneering) way in which he focused on contract research within the history department of the UU – his chair was later turned into a regular chair, because of the social relevance and embedding of his work.

In addition, the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities, founded by Joost’s former PhD supervisor Wijnand Mijnhardt, played an important role in Joost’s professorship. For students of the research master of the Descartes Centre he was an inspiring teacher, who also played a very important role in (the first steps of) their further academic careers. Always focussing on team work, Joost gave several young historians the opportunity to participate in his research projects. For them, it was a privilege to work with Joost, because of his enormous erudition, drive and (dis)skill, as well as his kindness, collegiality and sense of humour.

With a healthy dose of self-relativization, Joost sometimes speaks of the Utrecht School of the History of Psychiatry, and its most important characteristic: an eye for the tragedy of psychiatry. This is how he refers to the suffering of the patients as well as the difficulty of the tasks of (actors within) mental health care. But despite his empathy for the tragedy in many of his research themes and objects, Joost also knows how to keep scholarship in his field ‘light’. In addition to his sense of humour, this is mainly due to his enormous interest in and fascination for the field of research to which he has devoted his long career, a career in which he could be creative and flourish. With its characteristic complex interaction between the biological, psychological, social, cultural, moral and aesthetic, psychiatry was and is in his eyes the most versatile and intriguing branch of medical science and practice.

Read Joost’s farewell column for HHH here.