Claire Chatterton, Open University The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 8 (1) 2020

Picture of the front coverPsychiatric nursing (or mental health nursing as it is more commonly known in the UK) has a history that remains ripe for exploration. This book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on this subject, bringing perspectives from a variety of countries.
It emanated from a conference held in Stuttgart in 2015 and so is an edited volume of research projects on this theme from different national contexts.

It is divided into five sections. The first, ‘Hospitalisation and Dehospitalisation’ has three papers. Ashild Fause discusses psychiatric care in Northern Norway since the beginning of the twentieth century and analyses the three main types of provision; household care funded by the state, psychiatric asylums and hospitals, and nursing homes. This is complemented by two papers from Canada. In the first, Sandra Harrisson examines the process of deinstitutionalisation in psychiatric care in the 1960s, through the lens of a study of the General Hospital in Ontario, and demonstrates how the work of ‘psychiatric caregivers’ changed as they focussed on preparing their patients for independent lives. Geertje Boschma’s contribution looks at Western Canada and the relationships between caregivers, patients and volunteers during the process of deinstitutionalisation there in the 1970s.

In the next section, the focus changes to a discussion of patients in hospitals or clinics and their families. Jens Grundler gives a case study of a Scottish asylum, Woodilee at the beginning of the twentieth century, followed by Sylvelyn Hȁhner-Rombach’s exploration of a Child Observation Unit in Innsbruck, Austria after the second world war. She discusses how children and young people with behavioural problems became psychiatric patients and what time in the unit meant for them.

A third section entitled ‘deviancy’ has a chapter by Sabine Braunschweig in which she examines the cancellation of diplomas for psychiatric nurses in Switzerland between 1934 and 1965. She looks at 27 cases, involving 10 male nurses and 17 female nurses, who were accused of theft, performing abortions, ’morality crime’ (homosexuality) and addiction to morphine. By analysing the variety of ways in which deviancy was conceptualised and reported on by different hospital directors she provides a fascinating insight into what is now termed ‘fitness to practice’ in contemporary UK nursing practice.

This is followed by a fourth section which examines what might be termed ‘heroic therapies’ in psychiatry. German scholar, Karen Nolte, demonstrates the important role that nurses played in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of new forms of ‘shock’ therapies (using insulin and metrazol) at the University Nerve Clinic in Würtzburg during the 1930s and 1940s, by a detailed examination of nursing and patient records. The next chapter by Thomas Foth and colleagues investigates a nurse-led special fever unit that was established in 1939 in Ontario Hospital, Toronto, Canada for the treatment of patients with neurosyphilis. In this unit patients were placed in a high temperature cabinet for up to 8 hours to increase their body temperature, a treatment which was to lead to life-threatening consequences for some of them.

The final section focusses on the reform and training of psychiatric nurses with two studies from Germany; Maike Rotzoll’s examination of the introduction of advanced nurse training at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Heidelberg and Christof Beyer’s work on the Hanover Medical School. Beyer charts the introduction of a training course in social psychiatry, which led to debates about the blurring of professional boundaries under the leadership of a psychiatrist who wanted to create a new type of generic worker whom he termed as a socio-therapist or ‘sociagouge [sic]’.

This volume therefore offers a variety of rich and fascinating insights into different aspects of psychiatric care and nursing practice at various points in its history, in a number of nations. These are welcome additions to the canon of work on the evolution of mental health and psychiatric nursing and as a UK historian of mental health nursing it was interesting to read of the commonalities and divergences between issues in this country and others.