People and Places. Who Cares ? First International Conference on the History of Psychiatry in the English-speaking world

Call for Papers, deadline 30 June 2024

Université Paris Nanterre, 6-7 February 2025

Who Cares? De la psychiatrie dans l’aire anglophone is a newly-formed group of scholars from the Université Paris Nanterre, Department of English Studies,  CREA EA 370,  working specifically on the history of psychiatry in the English-speaking world. We are keen to encourage discussions on this subject and strengthen its international dimension. Our aim is also to foster further discussions on links and comparisons between historical perspectives on psychiatry in the French and the English-speaking worlds.  

As part of our project, we are organising our first international conference on the history of psychiatry in the English-speaking world on the specific topic of “People and Places”, at the Université Paris Nanterre in early 2025. This will be the first of a series of  3 conferences: “People and Places” (6-7 February 2025), “Theories and Policies” (February 2026) and “Circulations and Transfers” (February 2027) 

The history of psychiatry raises the question of  its disciplinary breadth, which Jan Goldstein once attributed to the very nature of psychiatry, an old discipline somehow “lack[ing] the stability that age would seem to confer”.1  While it was originally  written by psychiatrists and healthcare professionals (most famously, Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter), it also increasingly caught the attention of scholars in social, cultural and intellectual history, as well as historians of science and medicine from the 1970s-80s onwards.

The term “psychiatry” is to be taken in the broadest sense of the word, as defined by historian Roy Porter – a discipline which is “as old as the hills if we treat it as a portmanteau term for all attempts to minister to minds diseased”.2 This approach is perfectly in line with the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, presenting psychiatry as the “branch of medicine concerned with the causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness”. Though the term “psychiatre” was used in French as early as 1802, the word “psychiatrist” only appeared much later in the English language, in 1875, while “psychiatry” seems to have been in use since 1846. This does not mean however that the phrase “history of psychiatry” should only apply from the 19th century onwards, and it is entirely justified when dealing with any historical research on the treatment of the mentally ill.  The case of Bedlam in London, that was founded in 1247 as a monastery, then transformed into a hospital and is still considered today as the oldest “psychiatric” hospital in the world, provides a perfect example of the existence of psychiatric practices even before the coining of the term.

Far from being a mere play on words, the polysemy in our project title “Who cares?” raises the question of the attention paid to the patient in the therapeutic relationship, or their neglect.3  Evoking the feeling of incomprehension, contempt or indifference that the patient may feel during therapy, it highlights the gap between the doctor’s perspective, often focused on pathology, and the patient’s subjective experience. On the other hand, questioning the subject of care, it underlines the possible failure of caregivers to treat certain aspects of the illness, deemed secondary or negligible. It also questions the attention granted to the mentally ill and the respect (or lack thereof) shown towards them by the public at large, an attitude that is intricately linked to the perceptions and mentalities of a given society at a certain period of time, making it a genuine social and historical issue. What is more, the question “Who cares?” is intended as a reflection on the place, the role and the recognition of the history of psychiatry in the wider field of the social and political history of the English-speaking world.

The literal and metaphorical place of mental illness, as well as the role of the people involved in the care of the mentally ill (be they the patients themselves, their families, the doctors, nurses/attendants, or the local communities), has been analysed in a variety of ways. Following the seminal influence of scholars such as Gerald Grob, the likes of Kathleen Jones, Andrew Scull, Roger Smith, Jonathan Andrews or Peter Bartlett have anchored their studies on mental institutions in institutional, social and political history. Generations of historians have successfully enriched their approach to mental health hospitals via gender, race and/or colonial studies (e. g. Elaine Showalter, Joan Busfield, Hilary Marland, Catharine Coleborne, Angela McCarthy, Leonard Smith, Waltraud Ernst, Dinesh Bhugra, Roland Littlewood). Under the major influence of Roy Porter in the 1970s-80s, the historiography of mental illness has also attempted to decentre histories of mental illnesses, from the psychiatric institutions to other parts of the community in an era of deinstitutionalisation (Akihito Suzuki, Peter Bartlett, David Wright, Rob Ellis). This trend has continued in recent years, with the rise of micro-histories of experiences of mental illness whether in household or institutional settings, and historians have adopted various approaches to tackle Porter’s call to give a voice to the patients (Jonathan Andrews, Rob Ellis, Leonard Smith, Rory du Plessis, Jane Hamlett).

In the early 2000’s, the “spatial turn” encouraged further studies of care in and outside institutions, engaging in thorough reflections on the geographical language used to analyse the history of mental illnesses (Chris Philo). Transnational studies in recent historiography have been opening up new avenues for research in the history of psychiatry (Waltraud Ernst, Thomas Mueller).

This international conference, to be held at Université Paris Nanterre on 6-7 February 2025, will thus welcome  all historical approaches to psychiatry and more generally  to the treatment of mental illness which reflect on the topic “People and places”  from the Middle Ages to the end of the 20th century in English-speaking countries.

We invite proposals on “People and places” to be submitted by June 30 2024.

Paper proposals (20-minute presentation format), written in English (approximately 250 words) and accompanied by a short biographical note in a single Word document, should be sent to

Please note this Call for Papers is for in-person presentations only 

The presentations will be exclusively  in English

Topics may include:

  • Studies of therapeutic places and spaces (private/public institutions, families, community care)
  • Historical studies of psychiatric patients and their relations to their place of care/confinement
  • Individual and collective activities within the institution 
  • Art in hospitals 
  • Labelling patients / places
  • Institutionalisation / demise of mental hospitals/ places of care or deinstitutionalisation 
  • Therapeutic community movement (1960s)
  • Care in the community (1980s)
  • The role of professional carers in specific places
  • The importance of locality, architecture, specific geography in determining care
  • Circulations of patients/carers 
  • Historiographical approaches to people and places in relation to mental health issues. 

Selected bibliography:

Conference organisers:

Cécile Birks, Claire Deligny, Laurence Dubois (Observatoire de l’aire britannique),  Elisabeth Fauquert (Politiques américaines) and Laetitia Sansonetti (Confluences)