HHH column: Going beyond the scientific persona of the psychiatrist by Eva Andersen

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, Noortje Jacobs, researcher at Erasmus MC – University Medical Center Rotterdam, passed the pen on to Eva Andersen, doctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg.

Eva Andersen

Being a historian of psychiatry, I often focus on the psychiatrist as an expert or chiefly pay attention to the scientific changes that took place. Yet, behind these psychiatrists’ professional façade, stood their family and friends. I – and probably several historians of medicine, psychiatry and science with me – often forget that they too could influence developments.

Accidently stumbling upon archival documents from the Italian psychiatrist Guilio Cesare Ferrari made me contemplate about the friendships psychiatrists formed with their colleagues and the role their families played during their careers as asylum physicians. To what extent did these relationships, even across borders, influence medical and psychiatric practices or shape the creation of institutions? Were these relationships defining for the cooperation forged between psychiatrists? In this column I briefly want to reflect on the possible impact and meaning of this forgotten component.

In the early 20th century, abuse in psychiatric institutions was still commonplace, creating a need for change. Mental hygiene leagues became important movements in the western world to improve mental health care. The American Clifford W. Beers, himself an ex-psychiatric patient, founded some of the earliest leagues in 1908 and 1909. In Belgium, the Ligue nationale belge d’hygiène mentale was founded in 1922 by a group of psychiatrists and physicians, Auguste Ley being one of its main actors. Two years later, an Italian branch, founded by Guilio Cesare Ferrari, would follow.

What bound the American, Belgian and Italian mental hygiene leagues together did not only consist of similar social and scientific goals. Aside from having comparable professional interests, Beers, Ley and Ferrari were also very good friends. Professional and private relationships often blended into each other, and could be the start of close cooperation or influence on each other’s work. In the early 1920s, Ley asked Ferrari to collaborate in the League of Mental Hygiene and Ferrari offered to take up the Italian branch. At the same time, Ferrari was in contact with Beers about his book “A mind that found itself”, which Ferrari reviewed positively –  Beers would later recall this as the start of their friendship. Ferrari, in turn, modelled the Italian mental hygiene league on Beers’s ideas.

Photo taken at the first international conference for mental hygiene, held in Washington in 1930. Ferrari (first row, second from the left), Ley (first row, fourth from the left) and Beers (second row, first from the left). Source: “Ferrari al I Congresso di igiene mentale a Washington”, Archivio storico della psicologia italiana, https://www.aspi.unimib.it/collections/object/detail/4135/.

Beers, Ley and Ferrari also met each other on several occasions when they were organising international mental hygiene conferences, such as the preparatory meeting in Paris in 1927, and the first international mental hygiene conference in Washington in 1930 (photo). Private relationships could facilitate the professional cooperation between psychiatrists.

The professional and private relations of these psychiatrists also had an impact on their families, which grew very close as well. They regularly communicated via letters and postcards, and visited each other for both private and professional reasons. Ley visited Ferrari’s provincial asylum in Bologna in 1928, receiving a private tour of the institution. Ferrari’s daughters stayed with the Ley family multiple times, and in turn, the Ley family also occasionally stayed with the Ferrari’s in Bologna. These were moments that offered not only the possibility to spend time in good company, but also to discuss work related topics.

How close these psychiatrists and their families were, was revealed in particular when Ferrari passed away in 1932 at the age of 64. Auguste Ley, his wife Marie, their son Jacque and daughter Madeleine all offered their heartfelt condolences in individual letters. Marie wrote to Ferrari’s widow Emilia in unmistakable terms of compassion and close friendship. She had loved Ferrari “like a brother”, called Emilia “her sister”, and wrote to Ferrari’s daughters that “your old mother from belgium [sic.] hugs you tightly” (translated from the French original, EA). Even after Ferrari’s death, the friendship between the two families did not end. In a letter, on paper fittingly stamped with Ligue nationale belge d’hygiène mentale, Marie recalled their travels together, such as their trip to the United States on the occasion of the first international mental hygiene conference.

Beers too wrote a letter of condolence, recalling not only Ferrari’s professional achievements, but also a trip to Paris where he had lunch with Ferrari and his daughter Nora – just like her mother, Nora was often involved in Ferrari’s activities. Beers expressed his hope to visit soon and sent along photographs of Ferrari. The Ley and Beers families were in contact as well and kept each other informed about the wellbeing of the Ferrari family.

The national mental hygiene leagues and the international mental hygiene conference were central to the lives of these psychiatrists and their families, and in turn they may have (in)directly impacted scientific and medical developments. Although it is hard to determine from these anecdotes alone how far their influence stretched, they do illustrate that psychiatrists’ professional accomplishments were not only achieved through scientific merit and medical skill. The crucial, and often hidden, contribution of friends and family lay in the fact that they were also consulted to discuss and refine ideas and could (in)directly assist in the smooth(er) launch of medical initiatives. An idea that should be further explored, perhaps leading to new research initiatives that highlight the more personal side of scientific and medical developments.

Eva Andersen is a doctoral researcher at the C2DH center of the University of Luxembourg. Her PhD project is about the distribution and evaluation of psychiatric knowledge in mid-19th and mid-20th century Europe, with a specific focus on how transnational contacts played a role in this dissimination process. She defends her thesis on May 28, 2021.

Eva passes the pen on to Volha Parfenchyk, post-doctoral researcher at the Utrecht University.